Education Teacher Leaders Network

Upending the Negative Teacher Stereotype

By John Norton — July 01, 2009 6 min read
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Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter risked a charge of “inciting teachers to riot” a couple of weeks ago when he used his bully pulpit to tell America that teachers are born, not made—and that “the key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can’t.”

While Alter’s commentary, “Peanut Butter Politics,” was politically insightful, it was remarkable for its failure to provide any acknowledgment of the legions of expert teachers in the U.S. His eagerness to identify teachers as public education’s number one problem stirred quite a conversation in the TLN Forum discussion group. TLN member Dan Brown kicked it off by sharing a link to his Huffington Post blog entry where he criticized Alter for “joining the teacher-scapegoating chorus.”

“I agree with Alter that there are some complacent, ineffective teachers out there who should be fired,” Brown wrote in his blog. “However, this obsessive focus on cleaning house and demanding or expecting superhuman performance misses a larger point.”

“Most teachers in America are smart and dedicated enough to help their students achieve. They’re not the unaccountable fiends holding kids back, as Alter portrays them with his broad brush. Poverty, deficiency of support services, disjointed curricula, overemphasis on testing, and overcrowded classes do far more to impede student achievement.”

Brown asked his TLN colleagues this question:

How do we get the punditocracy to embrace, not scapegoat, teachers?

Heather, a highly visible blogger, called on teachers to be better communicators of their own work and accomplishments:

We have allowed our profession’s reputation to be spoiled because we’ve taught with our doors closed, complained that people don’t know what’s really going on, and allowed districts to handle any publicity of our accomplishments.

Our voices of success have been lost to the voices of complaint. Not just complaint, either. We come not only from a profession with the past practice of self-sacrifice, but one of violent modesty. Teachers don’t like to toot their own horn.

Classroom teachers need to take control of our profession’s reputation and to develop closer relationships with the press. Otherwise the reality of teaching will be left to those not in the trenches.

Bill described some of the ways he makes teaching public in his Massachusetts school, then added:

The bigger issue is the national media—TV news, radio talk shows, newspapers, magazines. By definition, being the education correspondent or commentator in those media is a full-time job, which precludes active teachers from participating. Perhaps they would consider some of us as bloggers though?

Somewhere here is the question of why teachers’ opinions are so roundly ignored in so many parts of this culture. I have my own ideas and dark suspicions, but bottom line, part of our job has to be to break media stereotypes out there, humanize our profession, and begin earning the respect we’ve always deserved.

Larry, a teacher in California, added:

Those with simplistic explanations and hidden agendas, who have targeted teachers as the problem, have been very effective at crafting that message. If teachers are the only ones who respond to those charges, we can be painted as acting defensively.

I’d say one effective strategy—to combat these charges and to have a major effect on improving education—is for teachers and schools to put more effort into engaging parents, not just in terms of what’s happening in the classroom. Engage parents on issues that they care about, which might include affordable housing, neighborhood safety, and economic development. Relationships built around this sense of reciprocity will always trump attacks.

Ken, a teacher in the Washington, D.C. metro area, wrote:

We need to expand our potential audience, not only by writing for publications that have an audience of educators, but to seek out and accept opportunities to speak to and write for more general audiences. We can write letters to the editor, craft op ed pieces, cultivate relationships with those who write about education for the general publication.

We should be willing to open up what we do, under proper supervision, to the media, inviting them into our classrooms and to speak with our students. We should also facilitate the voices of our students, the ones who perhaps suffer the most when inaccurate portrayals of teachers and schools are allowed to take hold.

If you ask me for an agenda, it would be to recognize that those of us who serve as teacher leaders and who are capable of communicating the reality about teachers—both the good and the bad—have a responsibility to take that on. It is at least as great a responsibility as that of teaching the students entrusted to our care. We cannot allow false and misleading portrayals of teachers to go unchallenged, and we need to hold those who make the rules accountable for any problems they create for schools, students, and teachers.

Nancy said teachers have to stop giving away their power:

I hate stereotypes, lazy repetition, and loose talk. And I especially loathe the current casual, almost hip reviling of teachers as a class. If, like me, you remember education in the 1960s and 1970s, there is no doubt that K-12 schools today are carrying a vastly more complex burden than they did 30 or 40 years ago. Teachers today are better trained and more qualified. Students are taking on more difficult coursework, and expectations are much higher, overall.

Many things have happened since the mid-1960s, including a shift in the economy that created an appalling gap between rich and poor. To blame teachers (teachers!) for their inability to transform an underfunded, neglected public educational system into one that addresses the needs of all children is idiotic. But it has been calculated idiocy, designed to sway public perception. And it appears to be working.

I think Larry’s right. I keep going back to the American-schools-are-bad-but-my-kid’s-school-is-OK stereotype. Parents who have resources (whether economic or informational) generally have choices, and will choose good public schools. And they will defend those schools and teachers, with some reasonably good information. Parents can be invested allies, far more than the media and the policymakers, who always have to chase trends and money.

Perhaps we’re sitting ducks for targeted criticisms because we are too narrowly focused on being human and “all about the kids.” We let other people speak for us, because we “don’t have time.” Sometimes, we are not respected because we have given away our power—to unions, to universities, to elected officials, to the media. I can’t think of a single, orchestrated movement in the past to change the way people see schools, or to give them hope and purpose around changing our K-12 system.

The Pew Research Center says it usually takes years to shift public opinion, and more and more, that shift happens through the constant drip of media, trickling down to the masses, often almost imperceptibly and through unrelated channels—a reality show, a movie, a cataclysmic event, a provocative book or TV show, a political campaign. Any and all of these things can start or hasten change in education, and in today’s intricate communications web, they are more likely to engender change than even compelling research or the ideas of “experts.” Jonathon Alter is another splash in the bucket. And the only thing to do is to push back thoughtfully.

What do you think teachers can and should do about negative media perceptions of the profession?


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