In China, Malaysia, and Taiwan, teachers are held in the same high regard as doctors. Teaching in Finland is so prestigious and sought-after a profession that only one in five applicants is admitted to primary teacher education programs in Finnish universities. When I visited a high school in Japan a few years ago, the students all stood up when their teacher walked into the classroom. Was the profession of teaching ever even remotely so respected in this country?
Certainly not in my lifetime, and over the course of my forty-five years of contact with teaching, I have watched the esteem commanded by teachers visibly erode by the decade. Parents who used to invite teachers to dinner and give them presents at Christmas now openly challenge teachers’ content, competence, and commitment. The students often emulate their parents’ example. So, too, do school boards.
Meanwhile, we in the US are suffering a severe, drastic, dire shortage of teachers. The stress of the Covid pandemic, and the resulting complications for students and teachers alike, certainly didn’t help the profession, but the profession was in trouble long before Covid came to town.
I’ve spent my entire teaching career, beginning back in the fall of 1978, teaching in private schools. This is because, for most of my career, no public school in America could legally hire me because I do not possess a piece of paper that says I’m qualified to do what I’ve done off and on for at least thirty years in all. (This may be one problem with public education.)
That requirement may have changed in more recent times because of the current crisis, but the last time I checked, I could still only be hired in a public school system provisionally, and would need to return to graduate school for state certification. At my own expense. While teaching full time.
The pay scale in private schools is generally only about two-thirds of what public school teachers earn. But my workload usually consisted of four classes a term with a class size seldom larger than 16 students. At my last school, where I stayed for 18 years, I also coached Winter Track, sponsored the Poetry Club, and had between six and ten advisees I shepherded through the upper school (10th through 12th grades).
Even with what might appear to be a light teaching load, however, for nine months of the year, I worked six days a week (seven during track season), and I worked hard, but I knew my students well, and no kid ever fell through the cracks. I knew the difference between slow and lazy. This is what parents who sent their kids to these schools were paying for.
But of course, the majority of my students came from well-to-do, and often very rich, families. Most Americans can’t afford the luxury of a quality education. And most public school teachers are saddled with teaching loads that are all-but-impossible to keep up with, along with state-mandated requirements that are mostly mindless lunacies created by grandstanding politicians.
We have enough money in this country to spend over $800 billion a year on defense. That’s $800,000,000,000 per year. Annually. We can afford to pay former presidents, including Donald Trump, an annual pension of well over $200,000, transition funding for seven months, lifetime funding for private office staff and related expenses amounting to several hundred thousand dollars per year, lifetime medical care, and lifetime Secret Service protection.
But we only have enough money to fund school systems where class sizes and teacher workloads are frequently guaranteed to result in substandard education. Where students are using textbooks that are years out of date or not even available. Where teachers themselves often have to buy with their own money the most basic necessities like dry-erasers, paper towels, and even pencils.
Moreover, public schools are saddled with locally elected school boards that seldom include anyone who actually knows anything about education. And in today’s America, school board after school board is being dominated by angry people who think teaching tolerance is attempting to turn their children into gay communists and teaching history is trying to make their children feel badly about being Americans.
Last January, teachers at my old alma mater were “encouraged” not to discuss the January 6th, 2021, attack on our nation’s Capitol. They were instructed instead to reply to student questions by saying, “The investigation is ongoing and as historians we must wait until there is some distance from the event for us to accurately interpret it.” As if what we all watched live and in real time that day was not what it so obviously was.
So here we are in a country that can afford a whole new fleet of aircraft carriers twice as big and four times as expensive as the carrier fleet we already have, where almost every police department can hit the streets with armored Humvees and tank-like personnel carriers and enough military-grade hardware to conquer half the countries on Earth, but teachers have to buy their own pencils, and teach too many kids even to remember their names, and make sure they don’t say anything about, well, just about anything for fear it might get them fired.
And you wonder why there’s a critical shortage of teachers in this country?
W. D. Ehrhart holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea and recently retired as a Master Teacher of English & History from the Haverford School for Boys.)