There are few jobs in this country more challenging than that of a public school teacher.
In a country with one of the highest rates of poverty in the industrialized world, with almost no social safety net to help struggling families, our teachers have to create a positive learning atmosphere in classrooms filled with young people under stress.
The teacher not only has to be someone who can transmit knowledge and skills, he or she has to be a diplomat, a counselor, a surrogate parent and occasionally a police officer.
And those skills don’t just extend to the students. The parents and caretakers (many working-class and poor children live with grandparents or foster parents) are a challenge all by themselves, as many of them are under extreme stress and act out as almost as much as their children. And then there are the local school boards, and state authorities, who are putting teachers under pressure to have their students pass standardized tests and are looking to discipline or fire them if they do not produced the desired results. A teacher today faces a complex variety of tasks that few people confront on their jobs—tasks that required intellect, creativity, patience, and imagination and, if all those fail, sheer stubbornness and courage.
You would think, given the difficulty of the task that teachers confront, the incredibly long hours they spend preparing lessons and grading assignments, as well as the tremendous time and expense they put into maintaining their classrooms, that teachers would be revered and respected by the American public. But in fact the contrary is true. Americans, more than any people on the globe, seem to resent—even hate—teachers.
How else to explain the propensity of people on all sides of the political spectrum to blame teachers for the persistence of poverty in the United States, for the failure of the U.S. to be economically competitive with other nations, and for disappointing test scores and graduation rates among racial minorities? We have the spectacle of the president of the United States praising the mass firing of teachers in a working-class town in Rhode Island where test scores were low; a school chancellor in the nation’s largest city demanding the publication of confidential, and often misleading, teacher rating data in the press; and a mass-market film about the power of teachers that focuses exclusively on privately-funded charter schools, conveniently leaving out the thousands of dedicated, often brilliant public school teachers working in the nation’s high poverty districts
As the child of two New York City public school teachers, each having spent more than thirty years in the system, and as someone who spends a good deal of time interacting with teachers in Bronx schools through a community history project, I find this hostility to teachers totally misguided. I invite anyone who thinks teachers are to blame for poverty and inequality to come with me on some of my trips to Bronx public schools and see the extraordinary efforts teachers and principals make to create learning environments for children that are filled with excitement, stimulation, even beauty. Look at the way classrooms and hallways are decorated. See the incredible projects teachers do with their students. See the plays and musical performances that the schools put on. And talk to the teachers and principals about what their students are up against. I will never forget the closed door meeting I had with a Bronx principal, whose school served three meals a day, where he described how many of his children started crying on Friday because they were afraid they wouldn’t eat until they came back to school on Monday. Or talk to a teacher who is working in a class where half the students don’t live with their biological parents, and get a sense of the desperate need these children have for love and affection.
I would like to see how well Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein would do prepping students for tests if they taught in a Bronx middle school or high school where half the students are on the verge of dropping out because of family pressures or problems reading and writing in English. The teachers who come to these schools and give students love as well as instruction are not cynically collecting their paychecks, they are taking responsibility for all the problems our society has neglected and for the family and community services it fails to provide.
In a society without adequate day care, health care and recreation for working-class families, where people have to work two or three jobs to stay in their apartments or share those apartments with multiple strangers; where young people face violence and stress in their living quarters as well as on the streets; where sports programs and music programs are only available for those who can pay, our public school teachers have one of the hardest jobs in America.
They deserve respect and support, not contempt. They are among America’s true heroes.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002.
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