Education Opinion

Bittersweet Rewards

By Virginia McCormick — October 22, 1986 6 min read

Newton’s law applies to education as well as to science: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The teacher who is recognized as meritorious--the one who qualifies as Teacher of the Year, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, Outstanding Teacher, Master Teacher, or Diva of Diphthongs-- had better be prepared for a negative reaction, too.

One expects that meritorious work will earn the respect of one’s colleagues and superiors. But, in speaking with teachers from school districts throughout the country, I found that quite the opposite is often true. Supporters of merit pay and other forms of teacher recognition might consider what several outstanding teachers told me.

Ruth, a teacher in a nearby district, resigned yesterday. She did so because after teaching for eight years she had had enough of the indignities of the job. Never mind that she was certified to teach three subjects. Never mind that she was innovative, creative, and, yes, meritorious. All that was important to her principal was that she could keep order in her classroom.

Because of this ability, Ruth was assigned to library duty. Since she was a language-arts teacher, she found this to be a reasonable and appropriate assignment. However, after two months of library duty, she was called into the principal’s office and told that her assignment had been changed to that of monitoring a study hall. When she asked why, she was told, in effect, that she was replacing a teacher who “couldn’t handle” the study hall.

Several months later, Ruth was again summoned to the principal’s office. This time, she was told that in addition to her study-hall assignment, she would now have cafeteria duty--for the same reason. After years of this demoralization, Ruth had suffered enough of the injustices that came of being an excellent teacher. She resigned her position.

If administrators seem to punish merit, colleagues frequently ignore it. Although it is true that administrators have the power to make life miserable, colleagues can make life just as wretched by their refusal or inability to acknowledge others’ success. Brenda’s unique project for encouraging children to write received attention in a national education journal. She was thrilled by the recognition, but stunned by the silence that ensued.

“I’ve taught in that school for 20 years,” she said. ''We are very close. We celebrate weddings and birthdays. We help each other in times of sorrow. But,” she continued, ''we find it very difficult to congratulate each other.” Not one of her peers mentioned the laudatory article until she received and posted a congratulatory note from a teacher in another state.

The message is clear: Do meritorious work and you risk being misused by administrators and ignored by colleagues. Or worse.

After a teacher I know was named a finalist in the New York Teacher of the Year program, her colleagues stopped speaking to her, she told me. Moreover, after the local press visited her class and ran a two-page Sunday feature on her innovative approach to teaching, she was called on the carpet by her principal.

''I thought he’d congratulate me on the positive attention brought to our school,” she said. “Until then, the only time we made the papers was when a gang of kids jumped the assistant principal in the cafeteria. But he wasn’t pleased. He reprimanded me for talking to a reporter without his permission.” Absurd? Read on.

Susan recalled how her district’s officials reacted to her growing national recognition as a writer on education topics. “The first time I asked for one day’s leave to participate in a National Council of Teachers of English convention, the officials were taken by surprise and agreed,” she said. ''They even paid half my expenses to Cincinnati.” But by the time of the next convention, an antagonistic administrator had planned a strategy of hindrance. ''I was getting an award for the best article by a classroom teacher,” Susan said, “but I was told district policy forbade teachers’ attending out-of-state conventions.”

Then Susan’s state education department asked her to give two workshops at their annual writing conference. She thought, “Even the most adversarial administrator will have to be pleased about this. I mean, the state department of education and it’s only 17 miles away, so I’d be crossing no frontiers.” Wrong. Her request for leave was denied. After she protested the rejection all the way to the superintendent, she was reluctantly granted one day’s leave-if she paid for the substitute teacher. She added, ''No one ever said ‘Congratulations.’”

When Lisa’s students received national recognition for their extraordinary research, she began to feel the heat. Her students, in their piranha-like quest for information, had stripped clean local school-, college-, and public-library shelves, to say nothing of interlibrary-loan materials. At the start of the next term, she was told her students were to use only materials available from the school library. Improbable? Not at all.

As preposterous as these incidents may seem, they happened. They happened to teachers who for years had been creative professionals who didn’t quite fit the traditional mold. No one bothered them--until their outstanding qualities became apparent.

When excellent teaching and student enthusiasm are noted, perhaps it suggests that administrators should encourage others to do things differently. But it’s easier to dismiss the unique teacher as not being a “team player.”

In “A Nation at Risk,” educational leaders decried “the rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s schools. Perhaps mediocrity exists because it is the only road to professional survival. I simply do not understand the way administrators and fellow teachers respond to merit. There are so many potholes and roadblocks for American education in general, and teachers in particular, that it is sadly ironic that we can’t seem to honor our own. Instead, at best we ignore and at worst we castigate our fellows. Is it envy? Fear? Feelings of inadequacy? Whatever the causes, the fact is we perpetuate mediocrity.

Perhaps Barbara Robinson’s narrator, who feared being clonked on the head by a classmate in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, typifies teachers’ acceptance of mediocrity when she says:

“I was always in the same grade with Imogene Herdman, and what I did was stay out of her way. It wasn’t easy to stay out of her way. You couldn’t do it if you were very pretty or very ugly, or very smart or very dumb, or had anything unusual about you like red hair or double-jointed thumbs.

“But if you were sort of a medium kid like me, and kept your mouth shut when the teacher said, ‘Who can name all 50 states?’ you had a pretty good chance to stay clear of Imogene.”

Like Robinson’s narrator, teachers may steer clear of doing anything creative or stimulating, noteworthy or meritorious, for fear of being clonked over the head by the Imogene Herdmans of education. Be a sort of medium teacher and you’re left alone. Stand out in a crowd and you end up with cafeteria duty ... or worse.

Unfortunately, by ignoring our peers’ individuality, their creativity, their inventiveness, we educators are promoting mediocrity. Just as there are students who fall through the educational cracks, so too, do some of our best teachers, like Ruth.

Certainly, it is kind of those who grant awards, stipends, bonuses, or merit pay for outstanding teaching to do so, but in the long run, it can be a cruel kindness.