Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Education Opinion

(D) All of the Above

By Susan Graham — November 24, 2009 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Out in the yard the leaves are cleaned up. Upstairs and downstairs, the guest rooms have been fluffed up. In the kitchen the refrigerator is filled up. In the dining room the silver and the brass is shined up. Those antique fern prints for the living room are finally mounted, framed and hung up. I’ve put in some long hours and some late nights and a lot of work, but I’m almost ready for Thanksgiving. I want the day to be perfect and I’m something of an idealist.

Yesterday, while I was at school, Judy came and cleaned. I did the last minute shopping and put fresh flowers all over the house. Today, my daughter will take a day off work and the two of us will set the table and prep the turkey, and, best of all, bake the pies. Then company will come and on Thursday, my house will be filled with the smells of Thanksgiving, with an abundant table of good food promising plenty of leftovers, and people I love around the table. All the work will be worth it and I will go to bed tired but contented.

Sunday, we’ll take out-of-town company to the airport. I’ll put away the Thanksgiving dishes, change sheets, clean out the refrigerator, pick up the house, and get ready for school. Then the next weekend it’s time to get the house decorated for Christmas, try to find perfect presents, bake a bunch of stuff, give a couple of parties, and get everyone in costume for the church Christmas pageant. I’m an idealist about Christmas as well. I’ll have to settle on some presents now because they have to get in the mail. Some people forget to RSVP. I know that I’ll discover that we are short two angel costumes. And I will realize that once again the Christmas letter will go out after Christmas. I have to admit I may be a little disheartened.

My personal life and my professional life have a lot in common. I am a contented idealist who, on occasion, becomes a little disheartened about the direction American education has been moving lately. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading Public Agenda’s recent report, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today. Based on teacher responses to their survey, 37% of teachers are Contented, 40% of teachers are Disheartened, and 23% of teachers are Idealists. There seems to be a strong implication that the Contented might be passive; the Disheartened might have given up; and that the Idealist might be, are, sort of, you know, ideal.

The report says that

It is the Idealists--23 percent of teachers overall--who voice the strongest sense of mission about teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 Idealists believe that "good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents." Idealists overwhelmingly say that helping underprivileged children improve their prospects motivated them to enter the profession. In addition, 54 percent strongly agree that all their students, "given the right support, can go to college," the highest percentage among any group. More than half are 32 or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that although they intend to stay in education, they do plan to leave classroom teaching for other jobs in the field. Although the researchers caution that the teachers' idealism does not necessarily guarantee that they are more effective teachers than their colleagues, half of Idealists believe their students' test scores have increased significantly as a result of their teaching, a higher percentage than other teachers in the survey.

My concern is that the Idealist seems to be defined by hopes and aspirations rather than how they impact student learning. Let’s begin by being more precise about “all students can learn.” Of course they can. You can’t stop kids from learning, but can you motivate or coerce them into learning what you, not they, have decided matters? That’s a little more complicated. Idealists, with the best of intentions, have a tendency to be moralists, imposing their ideals and values on others, with an unspoken subscript that “Your values should be more like mine.”

Apparently Public Agenda’s ideal Idealist believes the ideal outcome of public education is that “with proper support, all students can go to college.” But isn’t that somewhat presumptuous? Ideally, shouldn’t the parent and the learner be stakeholders as well in determining an appropriate education goal? Does the Idealist ever ask, “Do you want what I want?” or does the Idealist believe “Everyone shares my values or at least, they should.” And I wonder, why do one-third of the Idealists who plan to stay in education plan to leave the classroom? Could it be that they see teaching as less than their ideal job? Is the classroom just a stepping stone to something more ideal?

Finally, the report states that “half of the Idealists believe their students’ test scores have increased significantly as a result of their teaching, a higher percentage than other teachers in the survey.” But If student test scores are the data driven measurement of success, then shouldn’t the impact of an Idealist’s practice be based on actual test score data rather than what the Idealist “believes” about his or her impact on student learning?

Being an Idealist in education is hard because of the Sisyphean nature of teaching. Teaching is never finished and there will always be room for improvement and a new group of children who present new challenges. It is no wonder to me that Public Agenda reports

The view that teaching is "so demanding, it's a wonder that more people don't burn out" is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the Disheartened,--they are twice as likely as other teachers to strongly agree with this view. Members of that group, which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists, and more than half teach in low-income schools.

Yet the Disheartened teachers stick with it year after year; and almost half of them have done that in low-income schools. They stay even though they are frustrated by lack of support from administrators, discipline and behavior issues, and their concerns about excessive dependence on testing. In sports and war, don’t we consider it noble to fight the good fight against almost impossible odds? They may be Disheartened, but it seems to me that they are courageous and steadfast because they believe that they can and do make a difference in the lives of their students.

In spite of the complexity of the work, it appears that a great many teachers are Contented. When I read the report, there was a nagging feeling that being contented somehow correlated with having settled for status quo -- a need to awake from their self-satisfied stupor, become discontent with their inadequate practice, and strive to be Idlealists. But my friend Nancy pointed out

Why would we want to convert disheartened teachers into firebrands, especially since idealistic teachers in the survey were overwhelmingly young and frequently admitted that they weren't interested in teaching as a long-term career? The thing about idealists is that they burn out--or they become pragmatic, understanding that changing the world happens slowly, but is worth the effort. Maybe giving the satisfied and confident teachers a bovine label--contented--was intentional.

My young teacher colleague TLN friend, Ariel, epitomizes the Idealist teacher. Smart, articulate, and well educated, she chooses to teach in a New York City middle school; but Ariel says

I was never a total idealist about teaching and I was never fully content with my own teaching, my school, or the teaching profession as a whole. What worked for me was that I never took success with students for granted. And I never beat myself up when something didn't go as well as I expected.

Peaceful without being passive; committed but not compulsive; reflective rather than reactive. Ariel is half my age, but she has put into words what it has taken me over a quarter of a century to achieve. She has a mature and insightful teacher heart. I was a lot older and made a lot more mistakes before I learned that kind of balance. She is Contented in her practice, but I know that at times Ariel gets Disheartened. I just hope she stays in the classroom because our children need Idealists like her.

Public Agenda reduces the discussion of teachers’ perspective on their professions to a three-option-multiple-choice assessment of (A) Idealist (B) Disheartened (C) Contented. But teaching is much more complex than that. In my humble opinion, How Teachers See the Profession Today is an essay question. I wonder, how many other teachers would have answered (D) All of the Above?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.