Dispatches From the Front Line

"There is too much to say and too many emotions involved"

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In December 1988, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published the results of its survey of the opinions of the nation's public school teachers, The Condition of Teaching: A State-by-State Analysis, 1988. The survey offered a decidedly mixed view of the teaching profession. Relatively high job satisfaction contrasted sharply with concerns about students, lack of parental support for education, and working conditions.

The responses were dramatic—almost 90 percent of teachers said abused or neglected children were a problem in their schools; large majorities cited disruptive behavior, student absenteeism, turnover, and apathy among students; and more than half said respect for teachers in the community was lower than they had expected.

Taken together, the teachers' answers painted a vivid, often grim, picture of their professional lives. Of the 22,000 teachers who filled out questionnaires, nearly 11,000 appended written comments—a selection of which will appear in Teachers' Voices, a book the CFAT is publishing this fall.

The following excerpts from responses to the survey are representative of the teachers' responses.

“I Am Powerless”

Education is losing. We have a two-class society—those with an education and those without. The middle student is drifting toward behaviors that were once typical of only a few who would eventually drop out. Homework is not done by 40 to 70 percent of the students. Quality work is done by even fewer still.

As a group, students are refusing to accept responsibility for their learning. They are doing only the minimum required, and when that minimum demands more than they are willing to give, they shut down completely. The middle and low students are content with poor grades. They are sure that they will go on in school and that an education is not needed anyway. I am trying to teach high-level skills to a group that will not do what is necessary to learn the most basic skills. They have discovered the Catch-22 of education. The less you do, the less you are given to do.

I will not reach the goals the state has set for me. The dead weight of a growing number of unmotivated students is keeping me and those willing students from reaching them. I am powerless.

I stay after school each day to help students.

I contact parents with grade updates about every two to three weeks.

I let students retake failed tests.

I let students turn in late work.

I work with them and their parents in every way possible.

My class is considered easy by students.

There are no complaints from parents or students.

I am told to raise standards and teach more difficult skills.

My principal tells me to raise my grades. He doesn't know how to do it.

By student poll, I am 6th out of 38 teachers in popularity.

I have been nominated three times for teacher of the year.

This year I have been nominated mentor teacher.

I think I can teach well.

I feel like a failure.

I have been given a seemingly impossible task without any of the tools needed for success. My supervisors assure me there are no answers. They tell me “roll with it,” “it's society,” “maybe next year's group will be better.” That is not enough for a person who is facing 20 to 30 more years in education.

Teaching is what I should be doing. I like and enjoy the kids on a personal level. The challenge, freedom, and excitement, when it goes well, appeal to me. [But] I will teach only as long as it takes to re-educate and find another source of income.

I am a patsy who does not wish to leave his friends, associates, and students, but must for my mental and physical well-being. I am rambling. There is too much to say, and too many emotions involved.

8th grade, English, California, 12 years' experience

“They Do Not Care”

Student discipline is an overriding problem that seems to worsen each year. Many of the children have little or no discipline at home and therefore have great difficulty remaining quiet for even a few minutes. I have 1st graders who have never brought a pencil to school, who stay up until midnight and sleep through school, who have been suspended repeatedly for violent and disruptive behavior, who refuse to do their work despite rewards and/or punishments. They do not care, nor do their parents. How can I possibly raise test scores, let alone teach reading and math?

1st grade, Georgia, three years

“The Public Sees Teachers as Underworked and Overpaid”

All of my younger life, my parents continually drilled into me that in order to get a good job (that is, one that pays well and offers advancement), I would need a college education. Perhaps because neither of them had the opportunity to attend college, their dreams rested in their children. (Typical, right?) So I listened. And I believed. And I became a teacher. And now, with more than seven years of college credit and 10 years of experience, I'm making $18,000 a year. If I stay in my present position, the best I can hope for at retirement is to be making between $27,000 and $33,000 a year.

On the other hand, my brother has two years of college and no degree. He works in the private sector (Hallmark Cards), and makes in excess of $33,000. A comfortable retirement is assured him through profit sharing. He has a five-week paid vacation. He receives two raises a year, a merit raise and a cost-of-living adjustment.

Now, financially speaking, who is getting along better? I got the degree, he got the good-paying job. All because I'm a teacher.

I'm not part of a profession. Medicine. That's a profession. Law. That's a profession, too. Banking and marketing are professions. Where do teachers rate when compared to those areas? How does the image of teachers stack up to accountants and engineers? It's a pathetic joke to compare the salaries of professionals to those of teachers. No, teaching is not a profession.

What would Doctor Jones say to the hospital administrator who told him it was his week to watch the cafeteria? Or the parking lot? Those are the kinds of things that I do routinely.

I have the feeling that the public sees teachers as underworked and overpaid. Because their children are in school from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., they assume those are our hours, too. We have an extended Christmas holiday, which they don't have. And they don't like that. Mention the almost three months “off” during the summer, and they really fuss and fume. But except for last summer, I've worked at a second job every summer I've been in teaching. In addition, I've often taken college classes during my “vacation” just to keep my certificate current. And most of my colleagues do the same. Would the accountant trade places with me for three months of summer “vacation”? Remember now, that would include a $3,000 to $10,000 pay cut a year! I think not.

This has dealt mostly with money and benefits. But what else is there? Job satisfaction? I have that. I love what I do. I can't think of anything I would rather be doing. But job satisfaction doesn't elevate my standard of living. Job satisfaction will never pay for my children's college education. Job satisfaction will not afford me financial security at retirement.

Is it any wonder that I'm looking outside teaching for a job with more prestige and a higher return on my invested time and education? [It's] too bad. Because darn it, I like what I do!


“Used Trucks”

A friend of mine, a fellow teacher, went to buy a truck. The salesman found out that he was a teacher and said, “You will want to look at the used trucks.”

3rd grade teacher, Tennessee, 17 years

“They Make It Worthwhile”

As a drama teacher, I attend rehearsals until 6 P.M. daily, and from 10 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. on Saturdays for five weeks before a production. This is in addition to teaching two drama classes and three English classes each day. I wear a little gold “Superman” emblem around my neck. It's a gift from several perceptive students. They make it worthwhile.

9th grade, English and drama, Florida, 24 years

“You Learn To Lower Your Standards”

I have taught honors students (including advancedplacement history and economics) for over 20 years, and all I can say is that the students get worse and worse each year. They can't read comprehensively, they can't think logically or critically, and they can't and don't care about written communication.

I see as one of the principal problems a lack of standards. If you try to set a reasonable standard and the students can't meet it, the teacher is blamed for their failures by both the administration and the public. Consequently, you learn early in this “profession”to lower your standards, pass the students on, and avoid trouble.

The board of education and administration do not care about teachers as human beings. They do everything they can, consciously or unconsciously, to put road blocks in the way of effective teaching!

11th and 12th grade, social studies, Connecticut, 21 years

“The Trends Are Not Encouraging”

I love teaching. It has, however, been jolting this year to have a dynamic, committed principal replaced by a weak, indecisive man. I can envision enough frustration to perhaps drive me out of teaching or to another school. A strong administration sets a tone in which learning takes place.

The breakdown of the family is most certainly being reflected in the classroom. I heard a teacher wish her students a “Happy Thanksgiving” and a 9th grader said, “yeah, whatever.” Traditional, family-centered activities do not have the same connotations for today's students.

I would hazard a guess that over 50 percent of our students do not sit down to dinner with their families as a unit. One third to one half of the kids are from broken homes. They debate whether it's worse to go through divorce when one is too young to remember Dad, when one is old enough to remember but not to understand, or when one is old enough to remember and understand.

There are still enough kids who want to learn and parents who get involved to make the job satisfying, but the trends are not encouraging. Our PTA meetings average 50 people (we have 920 students) unless teachers are required to attend, then we have 100. Even the arrival of a new principal did not draw curious constituents.

The majority of students are working for grades (grades that will “get them into college”) instead of for the thrill of learning. Kids and their parents try to preserve class rank by ducking difficult courses or teachers. Guidance counselors are even encouraging them because their job is to get the students into good colleges.

—9th-12th grade, languages, South Carolina, 11 years

“I'm Not a Magician”

In recent months, the U.S. Education Department has released reports showing that “Johnny “can't read, write, reason, or think. I'm a teacher, not a magician. I can lead the students to learning, but I can't make them learn. I can't make the pain of divorce, abuse, neglect, hunger, loneliness, and no love go away. Before I can teach a child how to read, write, and think I must help the child create within himself a feeling of self-confidence and purpose, and I must be an all around emotional support. That takes a great deal of time.

3rd grade, Wisconsin, 16 years

“Families Are Disintegrating”

Many of my students face such enormous upheavals in their personal lives that I feel I should throw out the textbook and help them deal with these things that are certainly more pressing on their minds.

They arrive at school shortly before classes start. They go on the buses soon after school's over. When I want to talk to a kid about why he cries in class, or hasn't smiled in months, there is no place to speak privately and little time to do so. Most kids cannot unburden themselves about very private family matters, standing in a cinder-block corridor with other kids walking by staring, as they sniffle before a teacher who can do little else but be sympathetic.

Families are disintegrating. Schools reflect that.

7th and 8th grade, history and social studies, Maine, 12 years

“Learning for the Sake of Learning Is Practically Gone”

Almost all the teachers I know agree that preparation time is hardly adequate for the job we are expected to do. Students have changed so much in the last five to seven years, the older and easier organizational plans and approaches to material just don't work anymore. Attention spans are shorter. Motivation is lower. One student told me, “In the 60's, they used to rebel against authority. Nowadays, we just ignore it!”

Reaching these students demands a lot of creativity. Learning just for the sake of learning is practically gone. That's sad and scary. Basically, teachers just turn on the charm and enthusiasm, and hope to catch a few. Occasionally, we can prepare adequately for something, and it's wonderful. But usually, we have 50 minutes per day for opening mail, meeting with the principal, writing reports, grading papers, and preparing for the other six hours a day of actual teaching.

9th and 11th grade, English, Oklahoma, 14 years

“I Don't Know How I Can Do More”

My principal off-handedly said one day that I needed to do “more.” I come to work an hour early, tutor students, take work home every night and every weekend. I don't know how I can do more.

7th and 8th grade, English, Illinois, 15 years

“Children Can't Be Children Anymore”

I find teaching today to be an overwhelming job. We're bombarded with more subjects to teach, more responsibilities to deal with. The classroom teacher is expected to do it all. We're spreading ourselves too thin. We're pushing the children too much. Children can't be children anymore. More and more subjects are added to the curriculum. There is no time to just talk and relax with them.

Covering a certain amount of material is more important than what the children feel. I'd like to say: STOP, and let children be children. Give them time to enjoy school and realize that we don't have to push them and bombard them with everything. Learning the basics and learning to share and to get along with others would be much more beneficial to them.

3rd grade, Rhode Island, 15 years

“I've Become Disenchanted”

This is my first year of teaching. I thought it would be wonderful, especially after I had an excellent student-teaching experience. Was I wrong. I only hope I can find the desire to teach again. Becoming a teacher has always been my life's goal. I've become disenchanted with teaching simply because of lack of support. For instance, two senior boys failed my English class. The principal set up a contract for them. They had to complete three missed vocabulary assignments and write three short-story analyses. Completion of these items meant a “D” for their semester grade, and “less work” for me I was told.

Needless to say, I was outraged. These kids aren't dumb. They'll pass their little secret on—”don't work all semester, [and you'll] get a contract with a few easy assignments, a passing grade, and ultimately a signed diploma.”

Where are our priorities? Why teach? What's the point?

8th, 11th, and 12th grade, English, Iowa, one year

“A Great Rescue Ship Must Come”

As teachers, we are in our own classrooms, alone, as if stranded on islands in the sea out of sight of each other. Sometime, someway, a great rescue ship must come. Educators must be picked up, and a steady course to a safe port must be set.

10-12th grade, social studies, Idaho, 17 years

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 90-93

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