Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

‘You Work for Us': How a Student’s Slight Captures the Disrespect Teachers Face

Compare teachers with other public servants and a troubling trend emerges
By Jherine Wilkerson — November 13, 2023 4 min read
Opinion illustration of teachers and students, about job perceptions.
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Today, after cracking my spine sweeping up used Kleenex, I asked my 8th grade students to please remember to throw the used tissues away after use. If you are not an educator, you may not be privy to this: Students love facial tissue and hand sanitizer. Something about these simple unadulterated joys draws student after student across the classroom to use these treasures with abandon. Unfortunately, a number of students leave the remnants of the facial tissues on the floor and in their desks, and it is up to the classroom teacher to dispose of them.

So, anyway, I asked the students to throw the tissues away after use. One of my students looked me in the eyes and said, “You work for us.”

I would have almost preferred if he had intended this to be disrespectful. Had he looked me up and down—the universal sign for dismissiveness—I would have understood. Ah, yes. A challenger. Had he asked it as a question—“Don’t you work for us?”—I would have quietly redirected him or I would have opened the floor for a discussion (just kidding—in this political climate? Imagine).

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Illustration of contemporary teacher looking at a line-up of mostly female teachers through the history of public education in the United States.
Traci Debarko for Education Week

No, he looked at me soul to soul and told me what I am. Who I am. He didn’t mean anything by it. He said it exactly the way he has very clearly had it said to him: “They work for you. They work for us.”

We spend a lot of time at my school teaching and reteaching what I believe to be generally understood norms for decorum:

“We do not curse people out when they blink at us.”

“We do not argue with our teachers.”

“We do not flush chips down the restroom toilets.”

“We do not put our hands on people just because we think they are irritating.”

A lot of what we teach our students is in direct opposition to what The World is teaching them. After all, we do curse at people when they say something we don’t like. We do argue with anyone who disagrees with us. We don’t respect public spaces. We do get physical with strangers.

I have written before about the relationship between teachers and students, specifically the expectations for love as a job requirement. I hold fast to my belief that a large part of the distrust and disrespect that the general public has for teaching as a profession and teachers as educated individuals comes from the fact that most teachers are women (77 percent). Women in positions of authority have long faced disproportionate levels of public scrutiny and distrust.

Let’s look at the way we talk about different types of public servants, particularly those roles that are not female-dominated.

A police officer, like a teacher, is a public servant who typically works for the local government. Police officers, just 13 percent of whom are women, are answerable to a lieutenant and the lieutenant to the chief of police.

Firefighters, just 5 percent of whom are women, are also public servants. Firefighters are answerable to their lieutenants, battalion chiefs, and deputy chiefs.

Paramedics, a third of whom are women, are public servants, at least when working for a publicly operated system. They are answerable to the department of transportation, public health department, or, in some cases, they are integrated within a local fire or police department.

Imagine telling any of these public servants what their job is and whom they answer to. Imagine robbing a bank and telling police officers it is their job to prevent you from committing the crime in the first place. Imagine burning your own house to the ground and then telling a firefighter it’s their job to keep your house from becoming rubble and ash. Imagine you are involved in an accident and, when a paramedic comes to save your life, you tell them it was their job to prevent your injuries. It’s unthinkable, right? It is simply not done.

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Conceptual Illustration
Handini_Atmodiwiryo/iStock/Getty

The thing about public service is that it requires a community to exist and to be effective. We are a community when we have common interests and common goals—like roads that don’t collapse or police officers protecting and serving or firefighters fighting fires or teachers teaching.

I do not expect police officers to protect my community (settle down, I know. I know.) without also doing my duty to protect my community; I understand that it is a symbiotic relationship that requires my active participation. The same is true of my expectations for other first responders.

These are not people who work for me. They do not clean up after me. They work with me toward a common good and goal: the continued survival of our shared community. Yes, the world does teach our kids that bad behavior often goes unpunished or even rewarded. But just because that is the way things currently are does not mean that is the way they must remain. We teach our students to prepare for the world as it should and could be.

I am a teacher who works with the community, not for it. My job is to prepare students for the world beyond school through teaching the written language. I teach students about the richness of literature and the power of the human tongue. In conjunction with parents, I encourage my students to think critically and respond empathetically to the world around them. As the pandemic reminded us all, I also work to provide a safe space for my students to exist while their parents or guardians work. All of my work requires community participation.

If you look at teachers and you see people whose primary purpose is to clean up literal and figurative messes, then, frankly, you have failed in your duty as a member of the community and in your duty as a parent.

Lastly—if you are a parent of a child in school, please teach them how to dispose of used facial tissue.

And while you’re at it, send them in with some hand sanitizer. They love that stuff.

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