Teaching Profession

From ‘Rotten Apples’ to Martyrs: America Has Changed Its Tune on Teachers

By Madeline Will — September 28, 2018 8 min read
Heather Burtts, an instructional coach at Birney Elementary in Tacoma, Wash., speaks into a megaphone as striking teachers listen prior to a march and rally.
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For years, teachers continually heard the message that they were the root of problems in schools. But in a matter of months, the public narrative has shifted: The nation is increasingly concerned about teachers’ low salaries and challenging working conditions.

Teachers, it seems, are no longer bad actors ruining schools—they’re victims of an unfair system, and the only hope for saving kids.

Before, “there seemed to be a lot of teacher blaming going on,” said David Labaree, a professor emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “You now see a surprising degree of growing sympathy for teachers.”

Of course, the recent wave of teacher walkouts and protests, which were mainly driven at the grassroots level by individual teachers rather than unions, helped catalyze new feelings about the profession. But other factors played roles as well: Social media offered more visibility into teachers’ lives, from the second jobs some work to make ends meet to their out-of-pocket spending for classroom supplies. Evidence emerged that teacher-quality initiatives centered on student testing—which had become unpopular—haven’t worked. Even the election of President Donald Trump, which spurred a growing wave of activism across the country, has had an impact.

And while many teachers are pleased to be seen in a more sympathetic light, some warn that martyrizing teachers is a blow to their professionalism.

“We’d rather just be paid well and treated well” than deemed heroes, said David Cohen, a veteran high school teacher in Palo Alto, Calif.

The swing in public sentiment is illustrated nowhere more clearly than in the national media’s recent portrayal of teachers. Last month, three major news outlets—The New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Time magazine—published features on the plight of the underpaid teacher.


Perhaps the most shocking was the Time cover featuring a teacher sitting at a classroom desk, solemnly staring at the camera. “I have a master’s degree, 16 years of experience, work two extra jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills. I’m a teacher in America,” the cover reads.

That message, one of three similar covers the magazine put out for the issue, stands in stark contrast to other teacher-related headlines from the past decade, which have focused more on weeding out bad teachers. Kathryn Chapman, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University who is studying Time’s covers on education from 1983 to today, said teachers are often missing from education cover stories, but when they appear, they’re generally depicted as part of the problem.

“It seems like in the majority of pieces we saw, the schools are looked at as bad places: They’re failing parents, they’re failing kids,” she said. “With these new covers, schools are still kind of looked at as bad places, but the teacher is the victim.”

New data confirm that public opinion toward teachers and their pay has shifted sharply. Nearly half of people provided with information on average teacher salaries said the pay should increase, according to a recent poll from the journal Education Next. That is 13 percent higher than last year, and the largest change in opinion that EdNext saw on any single policy from last year.

What’s Changed?

Starting in West Virginia, a wave of teacher activism rippled throughout the country this year. Teachers walked out of their classrooms in a half-dozen states to protest low wages, cuts to school funding, and other education policy changes.

Schools across the six states were shut down for as long as nine days, but remarkably, parents and communities supported the teachers.

“Normally, teacher walkouts generate a hostile public response,” Labaree said. "[Parents tend to think], ‘They fancy their own interests at the expense of our children.’ ”

But this time, teachers weren’t just asking for a pay raise. They were asking for better conditions for their students. In Oklahoma, for instance, teachers were given an average $6,100 pay raise before the work stoppage began. They still walked out to protest schools being underfunded.

And social media was a major factor in generating public support. Teachers posted pictures of crumbling classrooms and dated textbooks online, and shared how much they spent on school supplies or about their second jobs.

“It helped galvanize more than just teachers, it was students and it was parents,” said Claudia Swisher, a retired teacher who participated in the Oklahoma walkout.

Swisher also walked out of her classroom in 1990—the last time there were statewide work stoppages in both Oklahoma and West Virginia. Teachers didn’t enjoy the same community support back then as they did this year, she said. This time, other groups, including pastors and female lawyers, demonstrated at the state Capitol. In 1990, non-educators weren’t as tuned into teachers’ activism, she said.

Also, the recent walkouts mostly occurred in right-to-work states with weaker teachers’ unions. The teacher activism was grassroots-driven, rather than union-led. Many of the teachers who protested didn’t even belong to a union.

Historically, the public has been skeptical of unions when teachers go on strikes, said Jonna Perrillo, an education historian and an associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso.

That stemmed from a New York City strike 50 years ago, in which teachers were out of the classroom for a total of 36 days over three separate periods. The union was pitted against parents and seen as aggressive and self-interested, Perrillo said. Public support for organized labor took a major hit.

“One difference in public opinion [now] is frankly that unions have been taken out of the picture,” she said. “The public has never been comfortable with the idea of teachers’ unions. ... This is seen as a much more personal story in some ways. This just gives [teachers] a sort of ethos with the public.”

‘An Undefined Period’

The teacher protests have taken place against a backdrop of changing priorities for education policy.

“We’re sort of in an undefined period where the ideas that were popular for the past 10 to 15 years seem like they haven’t worked that well, and it’s not entirely clear what’s going to come next,” said Jal Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Identifying and weeding out low-performing teachers was the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s education agenda. The administration’s Race to the Top program offered states financial incentives to include student-test data in their teacher-evaluation systems.

Other policymakers and education philanthropists, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, picked up the cause of teacher accountability, too.

But this summer, the RAND Corporation and the American Institutes for Research released a damning assessment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s expensive effort aimed at making teachers more effective. Despite an investment of $575 million and six years, the teacher-evaluation reform yielded no significant gains for student achievement.

For years, policymakers thought “if we attract, hire, and support the most effective teachers, that’s the answer to the problems of schooling,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

What researchers are learning, she said, is that teachers are not the sole determinant of student achievement. Other factors like poverty and family engagement matter, too.

Another shift: Lawmakers have taken steps to reduce the amount of standardized testing in schools, which is largely unpopular with both teachers and parents.

“If we’re in a period where the dominant testing-centric school reform seems like it hasn’t worked, and people are tired of that and think their kids should be tested less, that potentially makes them more open to the idea that teachers are underpaid and have been unfairly maligned,” Mehta said.

While educators say the sudden shift in public opinion is a nice change in pace, some worry that the narrative will become overly sympathetic to the point where teachers aren’t viewed as professionals.

“A lot of us don’t have a particular desire to be held up as martyrs or superheroes,” said Cohen, the Palo Alto teacher. “I think a lot of teachers would just like to be treated as professionals and not imagined in the superheroic terms of Hollywood movies and certainly not thanked for our sacrifices.”

Teachers on the Ballot

Experts question if the public support will translate into real policy change. Voters are often reluctant to pass tax increases that will fund teacher pay raises.

“I’m wondering if it’s going to get beyond that ‘poor dear’ sympathy stage to, ‘Yeah, I’m willing to give my money to teachers because it’s in the public interest,’ ” Stanford’s Labaree said. “That’s a much harder case to make.”

(Arizona voters were poised to have to answer that question in November with a ballot initiative to raise taxes on the rich—but the state’s highest court struck down the initiative.)

For some, the true test will be in November. Education Week has identified about 160 current classroom teachers who are running for state legislative seats—about 100 have made it past primary elections. How those candidates fare will be some indication of whether the pendulum has swung far enough to create real change.

“It’s not something that happens overnight,” said Alice Cain, the executive vice president of Teach Plus, a teacher-leadership initiative, who is running for Maryland’s House of Delegates. “The trend lines are at least moving in the right direction. ... [As teachers are] really building and elevating and creating the profession they want it to be, as they keep advocating very visibly for what their students need, ... people who are paying attention are only going to have more respect.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2018 edition of Education Week as Sympathy for Teachers Is On the Rise


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