In Defense of Teachers
If one skims across shallow signposts in our culture and media, one could understandably be convinced that teachers are generally lazy, second-rate indoctrinators, marking off the days till summer vacation, and working harder on radical political agendas than effective lesson plans.
Sadly, teachers typically merit news coverage only when the story is negative: an incident of sexual assault, a union protest for higher salaries, a recorded classroom rant, or inappropriate disciplinary action enforced on a student.
While these stories and others deserve coverage and exposure, they do not reflect the vast majority of public school teachers who care for their students with the same infinite supply of love, concern, compassion, encouragement, and effort that they extend to their own children. The true story of who teachers are and what they endeavor to accomplish every day for other people’s children is largely untold.
Reality check: In my 33 years of high school teaching, my colleagues were overwhelmingly motivated not merely by an aspiration to help students develop their knowledge and skills in a chosen subject, but more compellingly by a sincere desire to help students improve the quality of their lives. I worked with teachers who were driven to help students acquire a love of learning, develop a strong work ethic, find purpose in life, pursue achievement, and dream big. My colleagues were determined to help students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to enable them to make good decisions, navigate safely through an ever more dangerous world, be intellectually prepared for the next higher level of academic rigor, and be emotionally equipped to overcome the inevitable challenges each succeeding stage of life entails.
To argue that teachers are not motivated by financial reward is an understatement of epic proportions. While starting salaries in some states are competitive with other professions, such as business and engineering, the salaries for teachers after five, 10, or 15 years pale in comparison. In order for me to start earning a decent living, I had to enter a third decade of teaching and pick up a Master’s Degree along the way. After 20 years of teaching, my salary equaled that of a first-year truck driver (no disrespect intended towards truckers, who provide an invaluable service to our economy under arduous and dangerous conditions).
Teachers also toil without the types of perks other professions provide. No expense accounts; no company car; no reward trips to Hawaii; no Christmas bonuses; no corner office with a view; no stock options. Quite the opposite. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank, teachers spend an average of $459 of their own money each year on classroom supplies. Clearly, teachers are inspired by something other than money.
It is quite sobering to consider that teachers typically gear up for a new school year by immersing themselves in training that includes active-shooter-on- campus procedures and strategies, and mandated reporter obligations related to childhood neglect, sexual abuse, sex trafficking, bullying, and social media harassment. Gone are the days when tardy and attendance policies consumed back-to-school meeting days.
In my last decade of teaching, I kept on my desk, alongside my books, computer, and lesson plans a five-gallon painter’s bucket designed with a lid in the shape of a toilet seat and filled with toilet paper, sanitary wipes, kitty litter, and privacy curtain, to be used in case of a school lockdown. I also kept on my desk a five-gallon painter’s bucket overflowing with baseballs, to be hurled as a means of defense and protection of my students at an armed intruder.
To all those who rely on media and cultural influencers to tell the story of who teachers are and what they are doing, I hope that they will find time to visit a classroom to observe firsthand what is actually taking place. I’m confident that a visit to a classroom will reveal a teacher who is doing his or her level best to create a safe, nurturing learning environment in which students have opportunities to prosper personally, socially, and academically. I humbly ask that we replace judgment from afar with up close and personal engagement.