Thursday, December 20, 2012

An Ode to Teachers (Sandy Hook's Saviors)

As the residents of Newtown, Connecticut and the nation attempt to carry on in the wake of last week’s abhorrent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many Americans are understandably searching for some small scrap of hope and humanity among the ruins of the violence. Whether the tragedy prompts a long overdue strengthening of the country’s lax gun laws remains to be seen. But there is another societal change we need to make as well.

We need to end the war against teachers.

Indeed, the media’s coverage of the six slain teachers—the youngest of whom was 27-year-old first-grade teacher, Victoria Soto--represents a curious shift in the press’s typical treatment of teachers. Certainly, there is no question the teachers are heroes. They valiantly gave their lives protecting their young students.
Unfortunately, prior to the Newtown shooting it was quite rare to read the words “teachers” and “heroes” in the same sentence in the average U.S. newspaper. Instead, one was more likely to see “teachers” paired with words like “bad,” “unskilled,” “moochers,” “parasites,” and “Cadillac pensions.” Just three months ago striking teachers in Chicago were lambasted as “greedy,” and “indifferent towards students.” In fact, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera falsely claimed the teachers were striking to “maintain the status quo,” with regards to teacher tenure and termination laws. Untrue.
As blogger David Lindorff writes in a recent post (, 12/17/2012):
How many of the politicians in Washington and in state capitals and how many conservative think-tank “researchers” who attack teachers as leeches and drones would have shown such heroism under fire? My guess is damned few—if any. Yet… not one teacher in that unionized school fled the scene and abandoned the children to their fate. They all stuck with their kids.
Since the start of the recession teachers have become the country’s collective punching-bag. Union-hating right-wingers baselessly accuse them of causing the economic crash with their “Cadillac-sized pensions,” and union benefits. There have been many efforts to weed out “bad teachers”--so designated because their students scored poorly on the rigid standardized tests that have become the benchmark of education in the wake of “No Child Left Behind.” And states are rapidly adopting new measures to carefully monitor teachers at all times. (Yet there is no talk of monitoring the Wall Street bankers who actually trashed the economy through their fraudulent and illegal practices. Where, I wonder, is the effort to weed out the “bad bankers”?)
Things are not much better at the college-level, where even tenured professors must endure the juvenile criticisms of students on the end-of-semester course evaluation forms they are forced to distribute. (The forms are ostensibly designed to record students’ overall evaluation of the course itself, but they inevitably turn into scathing personal attacks of the professor.) And do I even need to mention the abject immaturity (not to mention sexism) of the website,
Suffice to say, teaching is not easy work. And contrary to popular belief—or the snide mantra, “Those who can’t do, teach,”—teaching is work. A ton of work, in fact.
What those who make this accusation do not realize is only a small fraction of a teacher’s job occurs in the classroom. The vast majority of it—grading homework, designing curriculum, planning lectures and classroom activity, generating tests, papers and coursework, updating and maintaining grade books, attending meetings/conferences, submitting academic papers, meeting with parents—takes place after school and often late into the night. And educators at every grade-level are currently being assigned greater and greater responsibilities, without seeing a corresponding increase in their anemic salaries. Liberal arts professors, meanwhile, have seen university budget-cuts exclusively targeted at their “useless” courses in English, Women’s Studies, Philosophy and the humanities.
Indeed, it is no longer enough for skilled, experienced teachers to impart their knowledge onto their students. They must do so while being unceasingly energetic, apolitical and, most of all, likeable. Those who fail to meet all three criteria will not last long in the profession. Iconoclasts, critical thinkers, and educators who challenge conventional orthodoxy (traditionally the purpose of higher-education) are promptly weeded out of the schools.
To be certain, I have offered a great deal of criticism of our country’s education system on this blog. But, for the most part, I do not believe the educators themselves are responsible for these ills. Most teachers I have had the pleasure of working with—both as a student and a colleague—are honest, dedicated, hard-working individuals who attempt to do the best they can within the increasingly limited confines of their educational setting. Does this mean there are no “bad teachers” anywhere? Of course not. They exist, just as do bad lawyers, bad corporate CEOs, bad police officers, bad doctors, bad businessmen and bad state governors. However, in my experience the bad apples in the teaching profession have been few and far between.
Furthermore, the entire concept of evaluating a teacher’s proficiency through her students’ “learning” (as measured by arbitrary test scores) misses the crucial fact that teaching is a two-way street. Even the greatest teacher cannot make his students learn. Students must want to learn in the first place. As William Johnson, a special education teacher in Brooklyn wrote in an NYT Op-Ed earlier this year (“Confessions of a Bad Teacher,” 03/04/2012):

Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.
In short, the job of educating our youth is clearly no easy task. Teachers are not our nation’s enemy. If we can salvage any lesson from the senseless tragedy in Newtown, it is that we need to stop treating them as such.
Victoria Soto, 27-years-old, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday.

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