Hello, I am a teacher. I would like to take a minute to indulge myself in the fantasy that I can bend the ear of the nation. You think our public schools are in a crisis. The media runs story upon story about low test scores, school violence and general apathy. How could you not feel that there is a crisis? It is just logical to assume that teachers are to blame for all of this. If kids are failing tests it must be because their teachers are not teaching them properly. If violence is up, it must be because teachers are not providing proper supervision. If there is apathy, it must mean teachers are not motivating the kids or trying to make learning exciting. Many of us have had bad teachers who seemed lazy, mean or uncaring. Maybe holding them accountable by paying them according to their students’ test scores or taking away their tenure would make them shape up. As a society you say the crisis is really with me and the rest of the people who teach children.
I am here today not so much to refute as I am to educate. A large part of educating has to do with empathy. So let me say that I empathize with your view of our school crisis. There was a time not too long ago when heroes were easier to come by. The guy that was elected president may not have gotten your vote but he was still your president and you trusted him as leader of the free world. Now we just assume that our presidents are lying to us and the person you really want will never be elected. The place where you started your career would pay you a fair wage and provide opportunities for you to advance if you worked hard. Now fair wages are harder to come by and chances are that you will change employers dozens of time before you retire. If you retire. When we watched sports we could count on our star quarterback or shortstop representing our city for their entire careers. Now we assume that our stars will go to the city that offers the most money, so we learn not to get too attached to them. The world seems more cruel and fleeting than ever before. We have known this on some level for a very long time. But the decay has worsened to such an extent recently that we can no longer put it out of our minds. Within all of this loss and disappointment we want something stable. We want an island of tranquility in this sea of molten chaos. Schools were supposed to be that island. Teachers were supposed to be agents of that stability. We cannot stand it when we see teachers step out of that role and act, well, human. They are supposed to be better than us. They are supposed to be the last vestige of heroism in an age of selling out.
So I guess this is part of the reason why we want to fire teachers who say things we do not like, whether in the classroom, in “real life” or on facebook. I mean, teachers have to understand their roles and hold themselves to higher standards than the rest of us. In an age where our elected officials can lie with impunity and bankers can get bailed out for ruining the economy, someone has to be held accountable for something. We may have to accept the villainy of people in power but we do not have to take anything from teachers. So when we read a story about low test scores or a facebook incident, our knee-jerk reaction is to fire the bums. At least we know that is one demand for accountability that might be gratified.
As a teacher I say I empathize with the place from whence these feelings derive. I look around and see the same things you see: a dying economy, corrupt leadership and widespread misery. I am disenchanted by the same lack of stability and heroism you are. That is because you and I, teachers and schools and citizens, all exist in the same world. We are all parts of that same decaying society. There is no difference between schools and the real world, nor is there a difference between teachers and everyone else. The same dying economy that underemploys or unemploys you also exacerbates the poverty of my students and the schools they attend. The biggest determinant of student test scores is their socioeconomic status. In the words of the Ed Buzz, “high test scores get dropped off in SUV’s each day.” So when exam scores are low while the economy is dying, should we be blaming teachers?
Yet for the past decade it has been us teachers who have taken the fall. Teachers and you live in the same decaying world. Many of us have been fired and the vast majority of us have been stripped of our rights in the mad quest to make teachers accountable. All of this while working longer hours, taking on more responsibility and dealing with an ever-increasing epidemic of child poverty. A quick survey of the situation should tell you that teachers have been fellow sufferers in the deterioration of society, not its cause. Your calls for teacher accountability are reactions against something much bigger than teachers. So, you see, us teachers are not only up against the same things you are, you have made us have to struggle against you as well. Instead of looking at exam scores and asking what it tells you about gross economic inequality, you use them as an axe with which to bludgeon us.
So you must forgive us if a teacher says something off-putting or off-color in real life or on facebook, we are usually just venting. Unfortunately, we teachers are losing even this basic freedom. We are not in different worlds at all. Look at the very idea of exam scores: numeric, unforgiving and cold. It exactly represents why our society is in decay. We have been beholden to some corporate ideal of productivity and profitability, some inexorable free market where winners win and losers lose. It is the same free market that has foreclosed on many of your homes and refuses to hire you. Yet, there you are, worshipping at its altar once again. This is why teachers need rights. We need to have the ability to stand up and say to you, our principals, our elected leaders and our corporate titans that what you want for our school system is wrong. Your obsession with exam scores is just the latest wave of decay. It is already destroying art and music programs since those subjects do not get tested. It is threatening to destroy history as well. This is the result of the policies you have supported.
Imagine we had the type of teachers you wanted. Imagine your teacher filled with nothing but sunshine and kindness who will do nothing but smile, tell your kids how great they are and care about nothing except getting them through exams. You would have a teaching force of myopic but amiable dunces. It is the worst type of person to have educating your children. They would not only acquiesce but participate in the decay that has already affected most of your lives. They will teach your children to do the same.
In the end, I am doing what you want. I am holding myself to a higher standard than you set for yourselves. What I mean by that is if you will not fight against injustice and decay, then I will.