Education Opinion

Response: Reasons For The ‘Downgrade’ In Respect For Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 17, 2011 8 min read
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Gail Kochon asked:

What social/political causes have contributed to the downgrading of respect for the teaching profession?

As I mentioned in last Friday’s post, I think it is safe to say that many of us teachers have felt less respected for a number of reasons -- whether it’s the push for new test result-connected evaluations that are often couched in terms of “firing” teachers instead of helping us improve; the publication of teacher ratings in newspapers, and being told that the “best” people don’t become teachers.

But are our concerns real or are many of us just whining?

It seems pretty clear that many in public life are taking actions that are indeed trying to “downgrade” respect for teachers. Though their actions are taking their toll in many of our professional lives, it fortunately appears that most people have not “bought in” to their perspectives.

Last month, results from the annual Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup Poll On Education issues were released. It found that 71 percent of those surveyed have “trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in public schools.”

The same poll, however, found that 68% of people heard “more bad stories” about teachers in the news media than good ones.

The Google Books Ngram Viewer allows users to search, compare, and graph word usage in hundreds of years of books including over 500 billion words. In this intriguing (though, admittedly, not scientific) graph, you can see that the phrase “blaming teachers” (in red) overtook “respecting teachers” (in blue) in about 1990.

So, numerous educational policy changes and their proponents effectiveness in framing the public discussion about them appear to have contributed towards this “downgrade” in teacher respect.

But why? What has driven this effort?

I’ll leave invited guests and readers to offer that explanation....

Response From Dennis Van Roekel, President of The National Education Association :

Dennis Van Roekel agreed to respond to Gail’s question. I have been a longtime member of the California Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate.

Educators often believe that the public’s respect for teaching has spiraled downward. Yet this year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of attitudes about public education had good news. Seventy-one percent of those polled said they had “trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools.”

You’d never guess that by listening to some of our political leaders and self-proclaimed education reformers. Why the disconnect? Here’s a possible explanation: As a country, we are failing our most vulnerable students, and it’s easier to blame educators than to do something about it.

America is increasingly a land of haves and have-nots. The wealthy are getting wealthier while the poor get poorer and the middle class is hollowed out. Politicians and pundits disregard this reality, and point the finger at educators.

Well, I’m a math teacher - and I’m pretty darn good - but I’m not a magician. When my students suffer from poverty, poor health care, parents working two jobs, and all the other problems that go with growing inequality, I can’t wave my pointer and make those problems disappear.

We hear all the time that American students score lower than some of our foreign competitors, but critics don’t seem to want to know how and why that happens. One reason: Our child poverty rate is over 20 percent. Finland’s is less than five percent. In American schools with low child poverty, our students can take on the best in the world.

Teachers make miracles happen every day in thousands of classrooms. And too often, teachers do their work in substandard school buildings, with inadequate resources and overcrowded classes.

Improving public education is a shared responsibility. Too many of us have fallen prey to a fallacy that schools can overcome all problems. Our students need social programs and safety nets that make it possible for them to arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn. Our foreign competitors have found ways to limit inequality--why can’t we?

Response From Barnett Berry, President of The Center For Teaching Quality:

Barnett Berry is President of The Center For Teaching Quality, an extraordinarily impressive research and action organization that takes the idea of “teacher leadership” seriously. He is one of the authors, along with others from the Center, of Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, probably the most important education book published this year. I am a member of The Teacher Leaders Network, a project of the Center.

For years, teachers have struggled to stave off administrative and political demands to teach as they are told. This has frustrated our most expert teachers. Meanwhile, during shortages, policymakers have typically filled classrooms with underprepared teachers (and kept salaries low). Such tendencies have created a series of perfect storms over the years--top-down mandates about “how to teach” have caused many excellent teachers to leave the profession, to be replaced by poorly trained recruits who may need to be told “how to teach.”

There’s also the “15,000" problem: the number of hours most American adults have spent as students in K-12 schools. This familiarity has bred a false sense of expertise about what teachers do, as well as some contempt. When students learn from expert teachers, teaching looks “easy.” And when teachers do not meet the mark, their performance suggests that anyone with average intelligence and a strong work ethic can get by.

And of course, public perceptions of teaching are colored by divisive debates of unions and self-proclaimed reformers over issues like standardized testing, teacher pay, tenure reform, and alternative certification programs. Such arguments only tinker at the edges of the real problem: schools are archaic, factory-like organizations that often treat teachers like interchangeable widgets.

To transcend these problems, I believe it is time to blur the lines of distinction between those who teach and those who lead. We have failed to draw upon our best teachers’ expertise to solve schools’ most pressing problems.

What if accomplished teachers could work as “teacherpreneurs,” teaching students but also working on targeted projects to improve schools? What if unions became results-oriented professional guilds capable of advocating for thoughtful, lasting reforms to ensure teaching quality? Such possibilities are within reason--and within reach. Let’s seize them. Let’s create the teaching profession that 21st-century students deserve.

Responses From Readers:

Readers shared other ideas:


The one common factor in the countries we tout as high-achieving based on international test scores is their high regard and unrelenting respect for teachers and the teaching profession. These are not simply words they say on a commercial or at an awards ceremony or once a year during teacher-appreciation week. The citizens in these countries promote teaching as the ultimate career choice (in Finland they have to dissuade children from choosing teaching as a college major). They give their teachers incredible autonomy and decision making (In Japan teachers control the national curriculum AND textbook revisions).We are nothing like that in the USA, and the testing and accountability movement has only aggravated our misconceptions and poor attitudes about teaching and teachers.

The bigger question for me is how do we, as a country, change this perception, direction, and cultural attitude?


The loss of respect for teachers in this country has a much longer history than NCLB or Race To The Top. What we are currently witnessing is the continuation of 150 years of oppression born out of the feminization of teaching after the Civil War. The feminization is a well documented moment in history when men left the classroom to fight, and women stepped in to fill this critical cultural role. The result was that within ten to fifteen years teaching began to be seen as ‘women’s work.’ The impact was that respect for teaching was tied with the respect for women in culture. We have a horrible saying in this country which goes like this: ‘if you can’t do, teach.’ What we mean when we say that is anyone can ‘do’ women’s work, but only men can ‘do’ work in the ‘real world.’

This has a lot to do with why every legislator and businessman thinks they know what’s best for education because silly teachers are too incompetent to solve the problems facing their own field. In my opinion, this is a primary reason why businessmen were able to swoop in and launch a hostile takeover of schools with little resistance.

Both ProfTK and Heather Warren made an important point that they believed that decisions made to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students have contributed towards this loss of respect, too.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks again to Gail for posing this week’s question, and to Dennis Van Roekel, Barnett Berry, bdeamicis, EdPhilosopher, ProfTK and Heather Warren for sharing their answers!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.