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July 26, 2009

Teachers in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — by maggiec @ 5:42 pm
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Teachers.  For the most part I have nothing but the highest regard for my fellow teachers.  It is a demanding profession; we get little respect and far too little pay for our efforts; we work with a population that while delightful some of the time, can be little terrors at others. And yes, I include college students in that population.  Ever have to deal with a surly (and smelly) hung over young man who doesn’t want to be in class and get his work criticized? We do.  But over the years, I have found that there are three types of people who go into teaching in America: the true believers, the ones who like the summers off and the short day, and the ones who landed there because they flunked out of their first major and needed something to major in fast so that they could graduate on time.

I don’t want to talk about the true believers here, who believe that theirs is a sacred duty or at the very least a vocation.  They are the teachers who have often unofficially taught peers since childhood, but have often struggled with the desire for a different career.  They could easily be in a more lucrative career, but something always calls them back to teaching.  They almost inevitably do a great job, and sacrifice and go above and beyond the call of duty each and every day of their careers.  We’ve all had a teacher like that, and if we’re lucky, we’ve had more than one.

But let me cast a glance at the other two groups.

The teachers who are in the field for the hours are a mixed group. Many are women who want to have more time for motherhood and planned on a career to accommodate that long before a baby became a reality.  They usually enjoy children and take their development seriously.  On the whole, these are good teachers.   Sometimes, though, this group can include people who want to have a totally different career, usually in the arts, so they teach as the “day job” until they attain success in their other field.  For some, that happens and they leave the field.  But if that never happens, this group can turn nasty and bitter, but on the whole they can be competent.

But then comes that last group—and they can be scary. I knew a lot of people who followed this path into teaching.  By this point in time, I’ve taught many of them, as well. Some of them openly hate children, yet teach or will teach elementary school.   I can understand the necessity of finding a major for graduation, but it scares me that some majors are stricter than others.  If someone is not competent to be a nurse or a physical therapist or an accountant, why should we let them teach?  One could argue that a teacher’s mistake won’t kill you or cause you problems with the IRS, but that’s a myopic view of reality.  Poor teachers create students with weak skills.  To use a hoary chestnut, teachers shape the future.

You do see where I’m going with this.

All of us with children have stories to tell about poor teachers.  Many of us have bad childhood memories as well.  To be fair to the profession, we all have stories to tell of idiot doctors, lawyers, car mechanics and insurance people as well, but idiots in those professions usually only damage one person at a time.  A bad teacher can inflict long term damage on a whole classroom of kids in one academic year.  And unless a teacher is grossly incompetent or oversteps the boundaries of propriety, there’s not much one can do about the situation.

Of course, we can always raise standards for teachers.  Most states now have tests for teachers.  One of my former students, a very bright young man who belongs in the first group, just took his state exams and found them shockingly easy.  I’ve heard from other students that they were far too difficult.  They only passed by luck and a prayer.  One student even asked me why the need for the difficult exams?  She was planning on teaching sixth grade.  Why did she have to know this stuff?  I hear things like this, and I am disheartened.

Frankly, I have no easy answers or quick fixes.  One major thing that must be done to fix American education is to change American attitudes toward education.  I’ve written about this before, but as long as this county pays lip service to respecting teachers while treating teachers like second rate professionals, it will continue to get far too many second rate professionals in the field.

Americans point to Japanese students, Chinese students, Indian students and ask, “Why can’t our students be as good?  Why can’t our schools be as successful?”  I answer, “Look at how these societies treat their teachers.”  There is a clear and direct correlation between teacher quality and student quality.  Great teachers bring out the best in students.  We see this in our own schools, so why can’t people make the next step in the logic? Better teachers means better students.

It’s actually a very small number of teachers in this country who are ill equipped to be in the field, but sadly, it is a larger number than in other professions.

Unfortunately, I’m not done with teachers, and so more on them in the next installment of my views on American education tomorrow.


1 Comment »

  1. Going to have to agree with the 3 categories. For now, it’s up to interview committees to weed through the motivations of an applicant. I’m also blogging on education and teaching at: I hope you’ll take a look and leave a comment, Sharon

    Comment by maestroeducator — July 26, 2009 @ 7:39 pm |Reply

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