By and large I have stopped reading the “talk back” or comment sections of news web sites. They tend to raise my blood pressure. I particularly try to avoid reading them when the topic is education. I made the mistake of reading online comments about an education issue in recent days. I don’t know about anyone else, but the number of people who are angry at schools and angry at teachers is alarming. When did this happen?
I don’t remember people being so angry about schools and teachers when I was growing up or even when I started teaching. Teachers were my heroes. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Jones, was the coolest guy I ever met. He treated me like an adult and he made me interested in things that had previously seemed incredibly boring. My middle school social studies teacher, Mr. Krull, brought history alive. His passion for the topic and his insistence that I become more articulate and have a point of view have stayed with me. Mr. Wiser and Mr. Gartz, my high school music teachers, fed my love for music and encouraged me to pursue my passion. If I disagreed with a teacher’s decision my parents let me know, in no uncertain terms, that my job was to respect the teacher. It felt like that was the message that our community fostered, that teachers were to be respected and that if our community was going to thrive that the schools should be something to be proud of.
Something has changed. Maybe social media has given more people a voice. Maybe there was always a group of people who felt let down by teachers and by the schools who simply didn’t have an outlet in which to express their discontent. I’m not sure, but I’m troubled by it. I fully recognize that, as a teacher, it is a given that I am going stand up for my profession; and I am. But, I’m also a guy who is willing to look into the mirror. There must be a reason that a significant number of people are flat out angry about our schools and teachers.
The basic premise of most of the discontent with teachers and schools seems to be that we are looking out for our own self-interest more than what is good for our students. I’m not sure if that is really fair. Whether it is true or not, it is a perception that exists. How did that start? I suppose some of it is because we, as teachers, have worked over time to be fairly compensated. We have had to fight to do that at times. While I am sure that schools have always had to fight for funding, it seems as though we have to fight harder these days. While most of went into education to work with young people and share our passion for our content area with our students, we have also had to become advocates. We have to advocate to our legislators and our communities for resources. We also have to advocate for our profession. When we advocate for fair salaries we aren’t always seeking more dollars for our own pockets (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but we also recognize that higher salaries will bring more talented young people into our profession. Every other profession in the world understands that you need to offer competitive salaries to attract the best candidates. Only in teaching does this idea seem to ruffle peoples feathers.
It must also certainly be true that there are also a number of people who just didn’t have a great experience in school. That’s the part that concerns me the most. We have to find ways to make sure that every student feels valued in our buildings. That’s not easy. There are a lot of kids with a lot of diverse needs and interests. Schools are being asked to do a lot these days. In my opinion we need to continue to try to look at our schools as a collection of individual kids. As hard as it might be I think we can do a better job of having conversations about kids one by one. We aren’t going to be able to be all things to all kids, but we can try to meet them as individuals and figure out what can offer to them. The truth is that we really do try to do that.
My reality, as a guy who has spent over 20 years in schools of all sizes and types (rural, urban, suburban, large, small, private and public), is that teachers want kids to be successful. I swear to goodness it is true. I don’t remember being around a teacher who didn’t want the kids they worked with to be successful. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been around some teachers who are better than others at motivating kids or some who aren’t as good at transmitting content, but they all wanted kids to be successful. How do we convince the seemingly growing number of people frustrated with educators and education that this is true? I’m really not sure. I suppose it starts with just talking about the good things that are happening in our schools more often. While being vulnerable to admitting our weaknesses, we must celebrate our successes. Our schools are responsible for making the world better for a lot of young people. In my school there are great things happening each and every day. Even when we as a staff disagree with each other we are advocating for what we think is good for our students.
I recommend to people who are frustrated with our schools to get inside of them. Watch teachers share their content passionately. Watch teachers insist that kids work harder. Watch young people creating projects, watch them stretch themselves physically and artistically, watch them struggle and yet be supported, and watch them smile when they accomplish something. I had two bands perform at a jazz festival yesterday and work with an incredible jazz educator in a clinic setting. I was so proud that his first observation to each of the bands was that he enjoyed watching them “have fun” while they were performing. They did have fun and I think they were proud of the hard work that led to those performances. That’s what is happening in our schools each day. How can people be angry about that?
I think it is safe to say that teaching is getting harder. It just is. It can be frustrating. It can be lonely. But, it’s what I chose to do with my life 20 years ago and it is important work. I wish I could say that I am going to ignore the “comments” sections online, but I probably won’t be able to. I will take the criticism of my profession with as much as dignity as I can (and truth be told, very few people would use the word dignified to describe me). What I won’t do is give in to the negativity. I see what happens in our schools every day, good and bad. I’m going to continue to advocate for more resources for our schools because we need them. I am going to defend teachers because it’s a noble profession. I am going to try to get better, because if I claim to care about learning I have to be a learner. I can hold my head up high. Schools and teachers are doing what we believe is best for kids. Every day.
My son has decided he wants to be a teacher. I am proud of him. He knows it isn’t a very glamorous life. He certainly isn’t going it to education for the money. He has simply been inspired by his teachers past and present. While I hope I have done him right as a parent, much of who he is as young man is a direct result of the great men and women who have taught him. He just wants to pay it forward. Anyone have a problem with that?