I’ve seen a rising tide of anger directed against teachers and the teaching profession in the last few weeks, and it’s a little frightening. Chris Christie’s decision in New Jersey to use the governor’s office as a bully pulpit set off a firestorm on an anti-cuts webpage on facebook, which in turn prompted news stories that drew hateful comments. And, of course, there’s the Newsweek story, and the Central Falls High School story, and … well. I’m sure you have examples to draw on. There’s this article from Philadelphia that notes the trend, too. The comment at the end from Suze Orman is telling:
“When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?” she said of schoolteachers. The article went on to explain that Orman “has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth.”
One comment by a teacher-hater in New Jersey railed against an upset school-librarian who makes $83,000 a year. He found out her salary by using an open database in New Jersey’s government that reveals the pay of every state and town employee. He harped on her for using incorrect grammar, and for not knowing her business, and for complaining about her pension and health care benefits, and not just accepting what the governor gave her. And all this for just 180 days of work a year!
I just recently had a chance to look at a school’s budget, and I learned that the school shells out 60% of its expenses for salaries. If that’s the case at most schools, and I bet it is, then I understand why attacking the teacher’s unions seems like such a strong and safe bet for top-down school reformers. “If we can just drive out the bad teachers, the ones just in it for the money,” they reason, “we’ll be able to reform the schools as we like!”
The difficulty, of course, is that none of us are in it for the money. My oldest professional colleague is in it because he has an active mind in a decaying body — coaching students through the intricacies of mathematics is a saving grace in his life. He has all the money he wants; what he doesn’t have in the bank accounts, but gets from teaching, is intellectual stimulation. Another colleague really loves basketball. Teaching is a path to being a great coach, for him. Another colleague chose teaching because with kids to raise, he wanted his work to be in line with the values he upheld as important — staying in a defense industry didn’t seem like a good long-range choice. All of them have a passion and an intellectual drive that makes them intrigued by some fourth thing beyond food, shelter, and sex. Even the teachers that I regard as the most egregious and misguided teachers I know have a devoted following of students around them, because they mean well, challenge their students even when crabby and difficult, and they try hard.
But there’s been a sea change in the world around us since the end of the cold war. The jobs have gone overseas. The tax bases of many communities have shrunk. The federal government’s ability to grant assistance has shrunk, too. The value of a dollar is more flexible than it used to be. And with public assistance programs on the ropes, education looks like one more thing that can be scrapped. Plus, there’s the chance to make oodles of bazillions of dollars from running private, for profit schools. Provided someone can figure out the model for the schools to work on, of course. I gather that the only successful profit-based models found so far involve stripping the school of the resources they need to achieve their primary mission — teach.
The cost of information is falling, too. A classroom teacher started the twentieth century as the most educated person in many a rural town. Now, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the teachers are likely to be only one among many — and the least likely to be invited to the dinner parties. And the least likely to attend budget meetings, or run for public office or the school board. Meanwhile, the cost of the information she hawks is dropping rapidly, and may wither to nil before the fat lady sings.
In short, this anti-teacher surge is just the rising wave. It began with the school choice movement, grew in the vouchers movement, and carried over into No Child Left Behind. Now it’s moved into Newsweek and the Race to the Top. On the other side, there were the murders at Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and other locations, and the voracious need of our media to cover those tragedies live. There’s no conspiracy here, just a sort of relentless flood surge of resentment against our profession for failing to make our nation’s children into a wonder of the world on a shoe-string budget.
What rising ant-teacher sentiment do you see? Where do you think it’s headed? What will be the result?