Reflections on Those Who Teach

In recent memory, academic testing and holding educators accountable for students meeting academic achievement standards has been the cardinal impulse of public schools. Teachers and administrators continue to face increasing pressure to respond to a high-stakes accountability movement that often forsakes much of what else (besides core academics) is worthwhile in the curriculum. Accountability policies so narrowly conceived and implemented so often with a “blame and punish” mentality, reduces the education enterprise to a process that, in many instances, has become mechanical and cold. Such a pressure-driven enterprise fails to appreciate the inequitable impact of schooling and society itself on increasingly diverse child and youth populations.

While it is necessary for schools to improve the academic achievement of students, necessity quickly becomes vanity when it threatens to deprive students of the ecstasy of the arts and the grace of civilized discourse; when the academic agenda is advanced in a climate in which there is little time or regard for matters of character, conscience, and interpersonal consequence.

In a perfect world, there may be little need for schools to address anything other than academic standards. Sadly however, incidences of violence, poverty, family dysfunction, and social injustice serve as constant reminders that it’s not a perfect world.

Nationwide, over 39 million youth live in poverty; almost a million American school children are homeless. Among western nations, America has the highest teen pregnancy, birth, and legal abortion rates. Three million American children are victims of abuse or neglect. Because it is such a dominating theme of so much of popular youth culture, music, motion pictures, television programming, and video games, violence has become a primary language of the current generation of young Americans. Bullying and gang activity has reached epidemic proportions, and nearly twenty million youth report having experimented with illegal drugs. The majority of adolescents who suffer serious emotional or behavioral problems receive no treatment—over a million of them enter the juvenile justice system yearly.

Simply put, not all students arrive at school every day well-rested, fit and well-nourished, emotionally secure, and ready to learn. With countless young people struggling to manage deprivation and stress in their lives, professional educators step forward to provide support and guidance, not because it’s on some performance test—caring isn’t tested—but because it’s the right thing to do. Simply put, teachers should be recognized for helping to raise children’s hopes as much as they are for helping to raise children’s test scores.

Teaching students representing richly diverse backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances is uniquely rewarding and challenging. Striving to connect in meaningful ways with every student, teachers perform small miracles every day. Surrogate parents to fifteen, twenty, twenty-five or more students, teachers coach, counsel, and console—whatever it takes to help instill in students the belief that contained within each of them is the power to join with others in helping to make positive differences in theirs and in others’ lives, to speak for those whose voices have been silenced, and to stand up on behalf of a cause or two worth fighting for.

Teachers make easy targets when one is looking for where to place blame for why every student isn’t meeting or exceeding academic standards. Teaching has become increasingly stressful as teachers bend to the weight of fresh concern about slashed budgets, insufficient resources, reductions in compensation, threats to contract status, and erosion in the level of respect they once received.

True, no teacher is perfect and some underperform. However, the small percentage of ineffective teachers should not indict the majority of educators, any more than the small percentage of ineffective employees in other professions, trades, or businesses should cast doubt on the vast majority of their peers. Persistently struggling teachers should be offered support with professional improvement. If adequate improvement is not demonstrated, a career transition plan should be implemented.

For one inclined to offer teachers a piece of one’s mind they’re easy enough to locate. When not in their classrooms or homes planning lessons or grading projects teachers can be spotted at the discount store spending personal funds on materials to supplement classroom resources. Look for them after school at the park and ball field supporting their students’ teams, or at the car wash helping with school fund-raisers. Locate them in the audience supporting students’ performances, or volunteering with afterschool clubs. In the evenings, on weekends, and in the summer they can be found attending workshops and classes polishing and renewing their professional skills.

Along with all that we demand of teachers, we should urge them to remain dedicated to helping to prepare students for a civic life in which they will engage with fellow citizens with differing views to develop policies and institutions that can advance shared aspirations. Just as we expect teachers to help students improve academically, we should encourage them to help students develop confidence and resiliency as well. Such a professional orientation enriches human experience, and is as good for business and the workplace as is command of any academic subject.

Seeking neither clamor nor acclaim for themselves, educators are devoted to helping students learn to harness their skills and to exert the power of deeply-held values and beliefs about the sort of community and society that they and their children would inhabit and help sustain. Extending teachers and other professional educators a little gratitude for their efforts in actualizing such devotion would be nice on occasion, but unfortunately of late, certainly not expected.
September 2012