A Quick Teacher Survey

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The question of the day is this: In all your teacher preparation classes and studies, in all the workshops you have been blessed to attend, have you ever been told that, every once in a while, you are going to get a kid who is totally incorrigible and for whom you can do nothing?

Teachers, apparently, are expected to be able to do what parents, priests, and police officers cannot do: "Get to" every kid. All those classes, all those workshops, all those so-called sensitivity-training sessions with the games and tearing paper were based on the premise that as a teacher there was no kid I could not "manage," "get to," or "reach." And if I couldn't, the unspoken accusation was that there must be something wrong with me. If some kid was disrupting my class, bullying the other kids, insulting me, or engaging in some other more or less serious anti-social behavior, I should be able to "help" him. (It was invariably a "him," never a "her"--suggesting the "trainer" had never seen two girls go at it.)

When I read the professional literature I am regaled with stories of "schools that work," "the best school in the country," and of kids who were on their way to prison or the electric chair or lethal injection (depending on the "humanity" of their state leaders) who were "saved" by some teacher... and I could be like that teacher and reach that kind of kid. Not to do so was an expression of failure of effort, intelligence, insight, or humanity on my part. As long as I have been part of teaching, this has been the case: I touch eternity.

Where did this idea come from and why has it persisted? Are teachers really more influential and powerful than even parents and the social milieu from which a student comes? When some kid "goes bad" we don't accuse the local constabulary or the leader of his church. In fact, when some kid beats, stabs, or shoots some other kid, we are usually told what school he attended or was supposed to attend. We're never told what church he went to, who his social worker, psychologist, or probation officer was. The implicit accusation is that the school somehow "failed" the kid.

Teachers, apparently, are expected to be able to do what parents, priests, and police officers cannot do: "Get to" every kid.

If you teach, or even if you don't teach, you have heard this: "Pupils don't fail, teachers (or schools) fail." When some kid dies of a drug overdose, you never hear: "Addicts don't fail, hospitals fail." When a teenager kills a cop, you don't hear "Kids don't fail, churches fail." And when some student shoots up his school, when have you ever heard "The kid didn't fail, the police and National Rifle Association failed"? Not even parents come in for the kind of responsibility teachers are expected to carry.

Every couple of years, there is another program that suggests teachers are to blame for all, or most, of the sins of young people. How Children Fail, Between Teacher and Child, Up the Down Staircase, Crisis in the Classroom. Do the names Hunter, Glasser, and Sizer ring any bells? Can you point out some place in their writings where they say there are some kids with some problems that the classroom teacher is helpless to manage? In all of the talk of reform and restructuring, has anyone suggested that there are kids with problems for whose solution the teacher cannot be held accountable?

Ahh, say the critics, if we accept the idea that teachers aren't accountable for some failures we won't be able to hold them responsible for any school failures. Is there any other helping profession of which that might be said? I think not.

Teachers are shrouded in this mythology of their power and understanding, which is just that: a myth. It is handy when talking about one's "rightful" income and public image, but it is a lie nonetheless. And it has had an effect: growing mistrust of teachers in general and public education in particular. You can tell people only so long how you will solve any and all problems having to do with their children given this salary, this program, this school organization, this number of computers before they catch on.

The public is catching on. The question now is when the education establishment will.

Charles M. Breinin, after 30 years as a science teacher in the Buffalo, N.Y., public schools, is now retired.

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