In Defense of Teachers
1:30 pm, February 7th | by Colette McIntyre
America loves us some bad teachers (and no, I’m not talking about the Cameron Diaz). When the story of 10th grade math teacher Carly McKinney and her naughty Tweets came out last week, the Internet was aghast. A teacher was smoking marijuana (which is legal for private use in Colorado, where McKinney lives and teaches), drinking alcoholic beverages, and taking pictures of herself doing strange acrobatics called “twerking”, topless!
Did Carly McKinney make some poor decisions? Yes. Did she deserve to be placed on administrative leave? Definitely. But the media blitz surrounding McKinney and her racy social media profile is emblematic of a larger phenomenon: what the New Yorker calls the “casual demonization of teachers in America.”
In recent years, there has been increasing vitriol directed at America’s teachers: weak teachers are everywhere and they must be fired; teachers’ unions are fighting for what’s best for teachers, not students; bad teachers are holding back America. The loudest indictmen teachers are lazy and greedy, sucking the public’s coffers dry. “More money,” we scoff. “How dare they strike for more money?! They are making ALL the money!”
Of course, this depiction of the teaching lifestyle isn’t accurate. Opponents of teachers’ unions love to paint a picture of the fat cat teacher living large, lapping up the sweet cream of taxpayer money. Evidently, in today’s America, teachers are the Rick Rosses of the public sector. Shopping at Dress Barn and driving a Kia — you fancy, huh? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average salary for full-time public school teachers in 2010-11 was $56,069. Not exactly burning-Benjamins-for-kicks kind of money. “Well, they get summers off,” you may argue (and people do, a lot). “They shouldn’t make that kind of money when they have summers off!” Well, I’m not sure what Robin Leach dream you are living in, but it’s not as if teachers are escaping to their yachts in the French Riviera every summer. Usually teachers use those free months to reflect on the past year, work on lesson plans, hold down part-time jobs, or attend classes to further their own education.
And let’s just pretend that teachers only strike for higher wages, as opposed to better school conditions like, say, air conditioning in classrooms. I’ve never been a teacher but I was, once upon a time, a precocious and obnoxious public school student. (I once responded to a substitute teacher’s reprimand with, “Do you know who I am?” I was the worst.) Moreover, many of my closest buds are currently making their way through the Teach for America program and I have family members in the profession. The stories I have heard and the things I have witnessed make me certain that after just one hour of teaching, I would be fired for raging around the classroom like the Incredible Hulk. Teachers are educators as well as disciplinarians, social workers, nannies, and nurses. They have to deal with violent tantrums, emotional issues, hallway gang wars, insolent teenage girls, texting students, sleeping students, hovering parents and state exams, all in one working day. Frankly, I would be willing to give teachers half of my paycheck just to ensure that I don’t ever have to teach.
It is absurd that we expect our nation’s teachers to sacrifice themselves upon the alters of education and “the children”, that we expect them to work and ask for nothing in return. Incredibly, when teachers fight for a higher wage or better working conditions, they lose our respect and instead get lambasted with charges of “lazy”, “greedy”, and “self-serving.”
Arguing that teachers don’t deserve higher salaries suggests that we don’t value the work they do. Teaching is a skill; it’s a profession that requires hard work, years of study, and multiple certifications. Teaching is a profession like any other and yet we don’t treat it or value it as such. We don’t take teaching seriously as a career because we still think of it as a woman’s profession. Some 76 percent of public school teachers are female; if the balance were reversed and more than half of the nation’s public school teachers were male, I wonder if we would suddenly take the profession as seriously as banking or business.
Of course bad and incompetent teachers exist, and I have seen enough Lifetime movies to know that teachers can do some messed up stuff (and send some messed up sexts). But there are also fantastic teachers, life-affirming teachers, real live John Keating kinds of teachers, who manage to do adorable things like have dance-offs with students while teaching children how to read, write, add fractions, and treat each other with kindness. Perhaps we should think of those teachers more often, or at least in between all our finger-wagging at the latest naughty teacher’s escapades. Trading in our Bad Teacher for copies of To Sir, With Love doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
[Photo via Shutterstock]