I recently came across an interesting blog post about the sexist roots of teacher-bashing. It got me thinking about why our society is so mean-spirited about teachers compared to, say, factory workers or firefighters or food inspectors. Other unionized employees or civil servants, I mean. Where’s the outrage about lazy police officers?
I always feel conflicted when people trash teachers. On the one hand, it greatly offends and annoys me: I’m a licensed teacher (pre-K through 2nd grade) and have a master’s degree in early childhood education. I taught pre-K and was the director of a progressive preschool in Cambridge MA. I also volunteered in schools for many years as a parent and worked as a substitute teacher before becoming a ‘real’ teacher. So I got used to that glazed over, semi-embarrassed look on people’s faces when they’d ask what I did for a living. “That’s so sweet!” people would tell me. Seriously. “Sweet” was a word I heard a lot. Or: “Good for you!” as if they thought I belonged in a sheltered workshop or was on weekend furlough from a minimum security prison. I can’t really fault these reactions, however. People with Ivy League degrees don’t generally become elementary school teachers anymore, notwithstanding the popularity of Teach for America (about which another time, but let’s not kid ourselves that the TFA leadership has any interest in actually training teachers.)
I’m always puzzled by the contempt with which so many adults hold the teaching profession and anything to do with young children. I’m convinced most teachers really care deeply about their students and want the best for them. On the other hand, I’d by lying if I pretended to be unaware of the lackluster, low-achieving profile of many in my profession.
I still remember the cringe-worthy moment in grad school — in a class on reading instruction where we were learning to diagnose and treat reading difficulties – when the professor asked us each to name a favorite current book or favorite reading memory. There was a painful silence as only one eager-beaver student — me, the “mature” career-changer – shared her love of reading. No one else had even mildly enjoyed anything resembling a book. That was a deal breaker moment for me, the point at which I realized I couldn’t spend the next 25 years of my life in a public school classroom, filling out special ed plans for kids who hated school.
So it wasn’t exactly earth-shaking news to me that teachers consistently score in the lowest quintile of SAT scores and are found, on other more or less ‘objective’ measures, to be total duds relative to other professionals with a similar level of education – engineers, for example, or computer programmers or lawyers. (I attribute it to two factors: the opening up of professional options for bright, accomplished women who in previous eras had to be teachers, but can now can be doctors or hedge fund managers, as well as the incredibly poor compensation and support package that repels competent new college graduates armed with better choices. There are tons of great teachers in countries like Finland and Korea, where teachers are well paid and treated with great professionalism.)
On yet another hand … so many hands! … even in our crappy American system, there are real pedagogic giants. Especially, I would argue, in the least respected rung of teaching: early childhood education. The best teachers are so phenomenal – so committed, so intellectually creative, so selfless and and passionate and nurturing – that they are not only life-changing, but in some cases life-saving. I’m not being coy in saying I never became that kind of teacher; I wasn’t in the classroom long enough and I’m not sure I had the temperament even if I had stuck with it. But I was befriended and mentored by such people. And I worked hard enough to appreciate those truly exceptional teachers for what they were: national treasures to be exalted, not mocked. They make the world a better place. And they are mostly — let’s face it — women.
Which brings me to this:
The Stereotype of the ‘Lazy Teacher’
The vilification of K-12 teachers is part and parcel of this misogyny. Last year, when teachers led the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol, many pointed out the obvious: Attacks on teachers—and other public sector workers like nurses and social workers—are overwhelmingly attacks on women. When “reformers” from former D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie portray teachers as incompetent, incapable of leadership, and selfish, they don’t need to specify women teachers for that to be the image in people’s minds—76 percent of U.S. teachers are women; at the elementary school level, it’s nearly 90 percent. As education blogger Sabrina Stevens Shupe wrote recently, “The predominantly female teaching profession [is] among the latest [targets] in a long tradition of projecting community/social anxieties onto ‘bad’ women—from ‘witches’ to bad mothers to feminists and beyond.”
The decimation of teachers’ unions and tenure structures seems aimed at forcing K-12 teaching back to the era before teaching became a profession, when young women—barely trained and constrained by regulations enforcing their clothing, living situations, and drinking—taught for a few years before they got married. Here are some requirements from a typical teachers contract in 1923: The teacher is “not to ride in a carriage or automobile with any man except her brother or father” and “not to dress in bright colors.” She is “to wear at least two petticoats” and “to sweep the classroom floor at least once daily.”