I just read a Leader from The Economist titled, “Teacher Recruitment: Those Who Can,” and I have to say that I am quite disappointed. The piece paints teachers in such a negative manner that I felt compelled to immediately respond.
First, let’s start with the notion that “at least the holidays are long.” Yes, because we all take ten weeks off in the summer and do nothing but relax and drink fruity drinks with little umbrellas. Oh, wait, that’s a fantasy. The reality is that most of my colleagues spend their summers in a variety of ways: working a second job, taking classes (pedagogy or content), and of course, preparing for the next school year. The breaks we have during the year (the longest being a winter break of 1 1/2 to 2 weeks) are usually spent catching up on grading and reading, as well as preparing for after the break.
Second, you write that “Teaching ought to be a profession for hard-working altruists who want to improve children’s life prospects. But all too often school systems seem designed to attract mediocre timeservers.” Are you kidding me? Are. You. Kidding. Me? The implication that teachers do not work hard is so absurd that it is evidence you have not been around teachers for very long, if at all, except for when you were in school as a student.
My colleagues are some of the hardest-working people I know. Our contract time is 8 am to 4 pm, but I know of no teacher who actually works only that time. I wake up at 4:45 am every morning to read the news, looking for items to share with my students that day and to build my content knowledge. After my 35-minute commute, I arrive to work 1 1/2-2 hours before my contract even starts. In that time, I read, make copies, grade, look for resources, etc. Some of my colleagues arrive early as well, while others opt to stay later after school. When we go home, many of us continue to work there as well. On top of our “regular” work (although really, there is nothing regular about it) teachers take graduate classes to improve upon their pedagogy or build their content. Try teaching full time, raising kids, and taking 3-6 credits of graduate classes each semester and tell me that teachers are not hard-working. Lazy people do not constantly talk about the need for more time, and yet, ask educators what they could use more of, and that will be one of the top answers (my guess is that money would also be a response).
As for being altruistic, do you have any idea how many teachers spend their own money on classroom materials and supplies? Or how many give up time with their own kids to go to a student’s play/recital/sporting event? What about the teachers who volunteer their time as club advisors, spending hours of their free time so that they can enrich their students’ lives? We didn’t go into teaching for the money or prestige, that’s for sure; we became educators because we care, and we want to change lives.
Also, do you really believe that “mediocre timeservers” would choose teaching as a career? You cannot be mediocre and expect to survive, let alone excel at, teaching. Why would a slacker want to teach? We’ve got to deal with expectations from a variety of levels- policymakers, administrators, parents, and students. In my thirteen years of teaching, I have yet to see somebody who would be a “mediocre timeserver.” Teachers have to be high-flyers, or else the system will chew them up and spit them out.
Third, you propose that the reason students don’t succeed is because of the teachers, as if we’re the only people in students’ lives. (“No wonder so many children struggle to learn: no school can be better than those who work in it.”) You forgot about external factors to students’ academic success. Broken homes, lack of resources outside of school, working a job, taking care of siblings, etc. all take a toll on students. Parental pressure to be the very best, increasingly competitive college admissions, teen angst, peer pressure, etc. all take a toll on students. And yet, for some strange reason, you seem to think that it’s only the teachers in the school who affect how students learn.
Finally, you chose Teach for America as a model to lure high-flyers into the classroom. I have a number of problems with that particular organization, many of which are summed up nicely in this petition. Additionally, TFA left a sour taste in my mouth after watching a documentary on them in a grad class. When asked why they were joining TFA, one of their high-flyers said that they wanted to do something good before they got a real job. You know, because teaching is not a real job. Their hearts may be in the right place (helping kids), but TFA only exacerbates the problems with the U.S. education system.
To be sure, lazy, incompetent teachers exist; however, for The Economist to imply that they are the norm is irresponsible and demeaning to all of the great teachers out there who have a positive impact on students every day. Not every teacher is going to be John Keating, but we try, and we continue working hard in a thankless, demanding, rewarding profession.
Thanks for reading.