There’s a bit of a hubbub happening over the most recent Time Magazine cover featuring the headline, Rotten Apples – It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher. Wait, it gets better…Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That. The story is all about the war on teacher tenure. Whoa. Seriously? The WAR on teacher tenure. Check out this cover, showing a gavel about to smash the most universally recognized symbol for teachers, an apple.
OK, I get it. I live in the world of academia. I completely understand, and have witnessed first hand, how tenure sometimes acts as a way for bad teachers to hang around and get paid, sometimes pretty well, for doing a poor job in the classroom. But this is not the norm. As a teacher, I understand how teachers might be offended by this cover. Yes, there are absolutely bad teachers out there. I have seen some of them in action and it is disturbing. But I have also seen the best of the best, and when you see a passionate teacher at work, it is magic. Why aren’t we raging about how good teachers are often underpaid, underappreciated, and not tenured? At my university, many of the best teachers I have ever seen are lecturers like me – not eligible for tenure. Sometimes the best cannot get tenured but we don’t see a magazine cover about that! Why aren’t we waging a war against the outdated publish or perish route to tenure? Why aren’t we waging a war against cuts to education budgets? Why aren’t we waging a war against ignorant plans that cut taxes to create jobs (which doesn’t work) thereby reducing the amount of available money for public schools? (e.g., read about Kansas) Instead we want to wage war against teachers having job security because a few of them might not deserve it. Wait…does this not happen in other professions? Are all CEO’s, athletes, actors, and tech millionaires exemplary in their professions, fully deserving of their job security and high salaries? Come on. There are plenty of highly paid folks out there who are impossible to get rid of even though they may not be doing a great job. Teachers don’t get paid millions (most don’t even break six figures) for doing a less than stellar job, but lots of others do. Where’s the outrage over that?
Have you ever heard the expression, “Those who cannot do, teach?” Can I just say in response to this expression, What. The. Fuck. Are you fucking kidding me with this bullshit? I am a teacher. I teach. I don’t stand at the front of a room droning on and on about a topic that I think is utterly fascinating but my students find mind-numbingly boring, expecting that my words of wisdom are penetrating their young minds and settling in like gospel never to be forgotten. I teach. I think deeply about how to reach students, engage them, and guide them through their own thought process. Teaching has long been thought of in THIS country as a fall back career, one that people do not because it is particularly challenging, but because they have nothing else to do or are incapable of doing the truly important stuff like, oh, I don’t know, being in business or law or medicine or entertainment or fashion or sports, or being a tech millionaire, or whatever other industry seems more significant than guiding our children through their formative years and helping them become productive members of society. You see where I am going with this? And people think teachers are not good enough to DO. Does anyone besides a teacher really knows what a day in the life of a teacher is like? It isn’t just about teaching. It’s comforting, motivating, disciplining (appropriately, so parents don’t flip out), listening, managing, herding, inspiring, facilitating, creating, innovating, cleaning up blood and barf and snot, and maybe, if you’re lucky, teaching. If that ain’t doing I don’t know what is.
Here’s what I know about what it means to be a teacher. Before I was a university lecturer, I taught high school math and science at a charter school in Tucson that served a neighborhood characterized by high rates of crime, poverty, gang activity, and drug activity. I had students held at gunpoint on their way into school, students who came to school with bruises from the previous night’s beating, high school students at a sixth grade level in math, students with disabilities who had never been diagnosed and couldn’t get the help they needed, students who spoke English as a second language and could barely understand what was being said in the classrooms, students who were pregnant at 13, bright students who refused to take books home to study because the gangs would beat them up if they were seen walking with a textbook, and the list goes on. I learned something very important from these students – education is not always the primary concern for a kid coming to school. Sometimes they are just happy to escape what’s going on at home. And sometimes, as a teacher, I found myself dealing with stuff other than teaching them algebra or chemistry. But when it came to the job of teaching, I tried to make the material accessible and interesting to this unique group of kids. No matter what anyone says, if they have not been a teacher, they have no idea what it really is to be a teacher. It is draining. And hard. And exhausting. It requires you to wear many hats. It is not just about teaching. I guarantee that every teacher in America is working well beyond their salaried hours to come up with interesting ways of delivering material to a classroom full of diverse learners, yet teachers don’t get overtime pay. Teachers are spending evenings and weekends thinking about how best to help your children grow, learn, and succeed. And they are often fighting an uphill battle against ideas and beliefs drilled into kids’ heads by their parents that go against the scientific principles they are trying to teach. They not only have to figure out how to facilitate learning, they have to care for the feelings and physical well being of children that are not their own. All while being paid some of the lowest salaries in this country. Can you think of a harder gig?
So I ask you, does the saying, “Those who cannot do, teach,” make any sense? I think not. Instead I would say, those who cannot teach, do. Because whatever it is that people DO that isn’t teaching, it doesn’t compare to the depth of commitment it takes putting so much time and energy and care into the development of other people’s kids. Fostering the educational growth of kids – is there anything more profound than that?
Now that I teach college my life is simpler. The students I work with are legally adults, and I don’t often deal with their personal or emotional issues. On occasion I do, but it is a different situation dealing with adults than with children. Now I have the luxury of primarily focusing on the teaching, on how best to guide students through the process of critical thinking. I know that not all teachers out there are deeply invested in providing the absolute best educational experience for their students. There are some bad apples running classrooms all over the country, no doubt. But I firmly believe that by and large, people who teach do it because they love the idea of being a part of helping children grow into the exceptional adults they all have the potential to be. At the college level, those of us who chose teaching over research chose it because we love our subjects and want to bring our enthusiasm for learning our subjects to the masses. We want to share our knowledge in new and innovative ways. We teach. We are teachers. We are not bad apples. Please don’t let the few and far between be the driving force of a war. Don’t let bad teachers be this decade’s WMD’s – yes, they exist, but are they really so prevalent that we need to go to war?
We all have a favorite teacher from our past. What were the qualities of your favorite teacher? Chances are, he or she was an extremely good apple just trying to do the impossibly complex job of teaching. Let’s focus on the bright, red, shiny apples for a change, and thank them for DOING one of the hardest jobs in the world. Those who cannot do, teach? Fuck that. Hey tech millionaire waging war against tenure – how about spending one day in a classroom of 25 other-people’s kids before deciding to wage war against any teacher? How about doing it for $30K a year? No? Doesn’t sound like fun? How about standing up in front of a lecture hall of 500 students, 98% of whom don’t want to be in the class, and getting them pumped up about learning? No? Why not? Sound difficult?
It IS difficult, and it isn’t always fun. It won’t make you rich. But I cannot think of anything more rewarding. Not even being a tech millionaire.