The Roots of Teaching-Bashing

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As I began drafting this Commentary, posted on the bulletin board near my computer was a list of questions I'd been invited to address when I spoke to a group of concerned parents from a local school district. The topics reflected nearly universal parental discontent: for example, why the dropout rate of Japanese students was lower than that of American students; how parents might explore home schooling; what parents might do to promote school choice. I found one question, however, particularly striking: "How can we get teachers to stop insulting and start respecting kids, even the ones who aren't good learners? Respect is a two-way street."

This parent is quite right: There's no question that those who want respect should routinely offer it to others. If teachers want--demand, actually--respect from their students, then they ought to respect their students in return. And often they don't. But when I read this question, I thought mainly about how, on the general issue of respect in education, it has become harder and harder to sort the kettles from the pots.

For example, during the days I was planning my talk for these parents, an ad featuring a gubernatorial candidate was running often on Pennsylvania television stations. In it, the candidate confronts a blustery middle-aged teacher in tweed, apparently on strike, and demands to know why he isn't at work.

The teacher deflates immediately under the candidate's challenge, and the candidate turns to the camera to promise the public that, if elected, he will keep these people--teachers--on the job, where they belong.

This ad suggests that disrespect for teachers is now so widespread that teacher-bashing can be used as a cheap and easy way to gather hate votes; it is a pervasive and destructive attitude which has reached the level of political correctness for many taxpayers. Following are two examples of many I've witnessed in my own region. The first involves a kindergarten teacher who is one of the most talented and hardworking professionals I know. When the teachers' contract in her district was being negotiated, a sign appeared in the window of a neighborhood home telling how much she is paid and asking, "What makes her worth it?" This teacher's family tried to keep her away from that particular street.

I observed the second incident when I was visiting a local school. A student asked the teacher for the definition of a term, and the teacher supplied it. Moments later, the same student requested the same definition, and the teacher provided it for a second time. When, just moments after that, the student asked for the definition a third time, the teacher refused to provide it, directing the boy to the glossary of his textbook. Then, with great pride and flourish, the student announced to the class that he was recording in a log he kept for the purpose that "on March 22, Mr. Smith refused to define a term when I asked him to." Such events, I learned, were common in this school, because parents unhappy with union negotiations had instructed their children to help "get the goods" on "lazy and incompetent teachers."

Despite this climate of teacher-hate, the parent who wrote and asked me to discuss teachers' treatment of students had a point, too. My own daughter, for example, has been forced, with her entire class, to kneel on a wooden floor and press her nose to it (in order, I was later told, for the children to learn to respect each other). A teacher once called my niece a liar despite lacking any evidence to support the indictment, and I have heard children called animals by their teachers--and worse.

Is respect a problem in education these days? Undoubtedly. Too many teachers do not respect students, and teachers themselves are widely ridiculed and reviled by public and press. But lack of respect in education extends far beyond these groups. In fact, I would argue that a lack of respect for others permeates education so completely that, if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that there is little (if any) reason to expect to find this commodity anywhere in the enterprise.

Let's start with the status of educators. In higher education, we have a very distinct professorial pecking order. Adjuncts and lecturers are clearly at the bottom of the heap, as their treatment blatantly demonstrates. They are routinely exploited, a practice that has been critiqued over and over in countless articles yet still continues shamelessly. These colleagues never make a salary commensurate with their skills, usually lack such basics as access to copying machines, and rarely have office space (let alone a voice in academic matters). The signal sent to their students during huddled conferences in hallways is that the university doesn't think much of these hardworking teachers, that they're not real faculty members--and if the institution doesn't respect them, why should students?

The extent to which non-tenure-track faculty are routinely scorned on college campuses was made clear to me one day by a bookstore manager. Knowing nothing about me except that I was not one of the new "regular" faculty, she had no qualms about correcting me loudly in front of a store full of students because I had dared to tell my class we would not use the grammar handbook ordered for other sections of the course. "You'll have to do as you're told," she informed me, "you'll do what the regular faculty do." Apparently, she believed her administrative seniority easily outranked my 10 years of teaching experience and extensive formal education. Non-tenure-track status seems to render irrelevant any other professional attributes an individual faculty member might have.

Things are not much better on the higher end of the scale in colleges. There, a Ph.D. clearly outranks an Ed.D., one of the many signs of an endemic lack of respect for teaching. In academe, respect goes not to those who teach well, but to those who have accumulated the highest piles of grant monies and/or of obtuse articles written for obscure journals--a rather select group.

But teaching? Despite sufficient rhetoric to reassure parents as well as politicians who control purse strings, anyone in higher education knows the truth about the scorn for those more interested in teaching than in anything else. Which explains why a professor will often say to a student thinking about teaching credentials, "But you're much too talented to be a teacher." And why, the more highly a professor is regarded, the less contact he or she usually has with actual students (especially undergraduates).

As John Mayher has noted, this perceived hierarchy of faculty extends straight down from the graduate schools and colleges into lower schools: Secondary teachers are considered brighter than elementary school teachers, who are themselves generally thought to decrease in intelligence with each grade lower they teach. One of the reasons for the venom in the window sign about my colleague's teaching salary is that the woman is "only" a kindergarten teacher. Sadly, sometimes the teachers themselves believe this nonsense about their worth; I have heard elementary school teachers introduce themselves as only a 1st-, or 2nd-, or 4th-grade teacher. Systemic lack of respect built into not only prevailing attitudes but often into administrative systems that treat teachers themselves like children costs these professionals their own self-respect.

Then there is the pecking order of disciplines. I completed my doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University, home to such internationally acclaimed faculty members as Maxine Greene, and perhaps the finest graduate school of education in the world. Still, the New York City street on which this college is located, 120th, is often referred to by members of other parts of Columbia University as "the widest street in the world," so mortified are the "real" intellectuals in the rest of the university at having any affiliation whatsoever with a college of education. At one time I thought that teaching writing was deemed the lowliest occupation in a university, but attitudes at Columbia taught me otherwise. There I learned to my enormous surprise that even teaching writing is thought to outrank any position in education. And worse, that there are ranks even within the field of education. Teacher education--especially if it involves working with undergraduates--is clearly the bottom of this disciplinary barrel.

In high schools, I suppose the gym teacher is most pooh-poohed by colleagues, and perhaps in elementary schools it's the art or music teacher. Certainly these subjects--art, music, physical education--are given less than serious time and support in the vast majority of schools. What a teacher teaches, then, and to whom, appears to send clear signals to others in the educational enterprise about how much (or, more accurately, how little) respect they might be due. Respecting others equally simply on the basis of their membership in the human race and their status as colleagues doesn't seem a norm of any school culture.

If the people in schools do little to teach students genuine respect for others, what about other elements of schooling? What signals does the daily routine of a school send about who and what is respected in the educational enterprise? Children and teachers in comfortable middle-class schools know by the number of intercom intrusions per day and the number of canceled classes per week for special events that administrators don't find classwork a very serious business. If classwork were truly respected, class time would be interrupted only for truly urgent matters. But anyone who has spent any time in schools lately knows that most schools are intercom-happy places where no announcement is too trivial to interrupt calculus class.

Children and teachers in sprawling suburban districts understand well the values that provide an Astroturf football field for male heroes while letting the girls' basketball team wear the uniforms of a previous decade--and letting classes depend on textbooks even older. Most disheartening, children and teachers in the ramshackle, make-do, overcrowded schools that Jonathan Kozol describes in Savage Inequalities know that America doesn't respect their color, their class, their experience--their very lives.

So, if we can't look to educational institutions themselves to model respectful behavior, where would this respect for others we say we prize so highly come from? Apparently, it would have to be imported with the student body. But where would they get it?

From home? Consider, then, in how many homes teachers as an undifferentiated mass are routinely mocked, even cursed--along with politicians, lawyers, people of other colors or religions, people of other politics or lifestyles, people from different socioeconomic strata (higher or lower--each takes its hits).

When all is said and done, institutions mirror the fabric of the society which founded them, and American schools are thoroughly American institutions: Quick to pay lip service to equity and tolerance, quicker to ban books and enforce conformity. Quick, too, to structure a heap so that somebody can always be on top enjoying the view over a lot of other somebodies on the bottom.

So what did I tell the parent concerned about respect for her student? The truth: "I agree this is a major problem, and I don't know how to fix it." I'll keep my own candle lit by doing my best to behave respectfully to all others, under all conditions--but I have to admit, at the moment I find the darkness pretty daunting.

Vol. 14, Issue 04, Pages 39, 41

Published in Print: September 28, 1994, as The Roots of Teaching-Bashing
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