No More Teachers?

At the start of “Good-bye, Teacher… “ Fred Keller quotes one version of that old doggerel:

Good-bye scholars, good-bye school;
Good-bye teacher, darned old fool!

I learned it as:

Good-bye pencils, good-bye books;
Good-bye teachers’ dirty looks.

It doesn’t matter; the point’s the same.  We were glad to get rid of teachers, for the summer, at least.

We hated them.  Or, at least, we thought we did.  They repressed us, kept us quiet and indoors.  Made us read and study.  “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” we said.

Chichikov's teacherThe disdain for teachers and for their profession started early and, for many Americans, remains strong.  Young and naive, we didn’t believe we ever learned at school, that we pretty much taught ourselves everything we know.  Many of us still don’t.

By “we,” I mean “we.”  I hated school until I got to college, and found my teachers repressive, petty, and unfair.  Only a few were any good: a Mr. Board (I’m sorry I don’t remember his first name) who taught American Studies at Holland High School in Michigan in the sixties, who showed me teachers could think and could challenge, and who let it slide when I skipped school the day Woody Guthrie died. One or two others.  Most of my learning came from the books I devoured and the people I talked to and argued with–everywhere but in school.

The few good teachers I had were different from the rest, from the ones I so abhorred.  They knew two things in common, how to motivate students and the content of their fields.  Beyond that, they were all unique, each with his or her own style and methodology.  So, I thought, they didn’t count.

When I became a teacher, I thought hard about them, and have tried to develop my own motivational abilities and a classroom style and method reflecting my own personality and (most important) the needs of the students.  At some point, I dropped my resentments against all those bad teachers I suffered through and started concentrating on the few who were good.

Which is where I started to diverge from the mainstream of thought about teaching in the United States.

The generalized and previously unfocused disdain for teachers in the United States has coalesced into a movement whose prime, if unspoken goal is removal of the teacher from education completely.  It has long been seen in the home-schooling movement, where parents feel they can take on teaching duties more successfully than the professionals.  (And it’s true–but it’s also not something that can be true for most families.  It takes wealth and stability, and educated parents, for home-schooling to work.)  It is manifest, today, in attitudes towards teachers’ unions, which are seen as coddling lazy teachers with easy schedules and huge amounts of free time each year.

It is seen, today, in the mania for standardization, especially in our charter schools, where teaching is reduced to the following of a script.  One former charter-school teacher writes:

I asked my supervisor why everything was scripted, and she informed me that this was a way to ensure teaching consistency across each grade level. In the past, she explained, some students had been getting quality instruction, while others were getting less quality instruction; scripts were a way to eradicate that inequality and make sure that everyone received the same thing. Mediocrity, evidently, was acceptable, as long as it was uniform.

The idea of uniform teaching baffled and infuriated me for a number of reasons. It reduced teaching to regurgitating lines off a page, and learning to nothing more than acquiring information and regurgitating it right back. Use of scripts insinuated that we were incapable of designing instruction on our own and that manuals created by faceless executives were appropriate for all of our students.

The idea doesn’t baffle me: it’s a way of reducing teaching to clerical duties that can be performed by anyone, making the teacher expendable.  Allowing that anger at teachers from our early days that still boils within us, whose steam still pressures us, to find release.

It’s a sign that we Americans have not grown up or have regressed back to childishness, that we have become so immature we cannot recognize the good in the bad, that we don’t see that, for all its weaknesses, the public-education system that developed over the past century-and-a-half, a system based on the individual teacher, has been extremely successful and has, for all we might have hated it, allowed us to achieve more than any country in history.

It’s a sign, too, that we believe our own myth, that we made it on our own in the face of obstacles like all those teachers who were out to destroy us, not letting us ‘be all we could be,’ not coddling us as we believe they should have been doing.  It’s a sign that we think we could have done it all, if left to our own devices.

Our desire to destroy teachers is a manifestation of an insipid and short-sighted libertarianism that also grasps onto the writing of Ayn Rand with its vision of the super-individual, the one who can do anything as long as all of those standing in the way are pushed aside.

Our desire to destroy teachers stems from a childish vision of our own individualism and empowerment, from belief that we are better and more deserving than anyone else.

Not only is our desire childish (as Ayn Rand is, appealing to immature belief in one’s own unique, if unappreciated talent), but it is self-destructive, leading to the tearing down of what has built us up.

If we want the possibilities for the future to return to the level of the past, we have to start growing up finally, as American culture, and to start seeing that life is greater than any individual, as is success, and that we, if we are going to improve the future, need  to set aside our own resentments about the past and find what was good there.  We are going to have to learn to understand the value of others, particularly of teachers and guides.  We are going to have to come to see again that no individual stands alone, but stands with the assistance of others.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater has never proven a satisfactory course… unless it’s the baby we wanted to get rid of in the first place.

And only the least mature among us could really want that.

But Why Do We Bash Teachers?

Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, in an otherwise excellent op-ed in the May 1st edition of the New York Times, ignore one important question: Why do we, as Americans, so loathe our teachers?

Eggers and Calegari are right: we can turn around our schools, and can do so by renewing our faith in teachers, in providing them better and better training and real support in the schools, and by paying them adequately.

That we don’t, that we blame our teachers for the ‘failures’ of our educational system, is tantamount, Eggers and Calegari say, to blaming the soldiers for the loss of a war:

No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Yes.  Exactly.  So, let’s stop blaming the teachers, give them pay and support, and improve our schools!

Except it’s not so simple.

Our war is a war on education, and on teachers.  We don’t see them as our army, but as our enemy.  If you destroy the enemy ground soldiers, you destroy the enemy: The planners cannot complete their plans without the grunts.  The leaders cannot lead without the followers.  As the planners, the leaders, are safely bunkered way behind the lines, it’s much easier to take out the infantry, the teachers.

The question that must be addressed before the country will be willing to back its teachers is why do we hate education so much?  Why do we see it in such loathsome light?  No taxpayers willingly give money to support the very people seen as fighting to destroy them or their values–hell, that was one of the causes of the American revolution!

What has happened to the image of the teacher in American society stems directly from callous political calculations that began in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.  Conservative activists saw that they could take advantage of two trends for their own successes at the voting booth.  One was (and is) dissatisfaction with the new protections for American minorities.  This is seen most starkly in resistance to busing and in the rise of alternative private schools and the home-schooling movement.  Seeing the public schools as becoming the possession of minorities, many white Americans decided to opt out of the system–but they could not opt out of paying for it.  The other was (and is) the foundational mindset that have grown so strong in America since the Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century.  American education, growing out the Enlightenment empiricist traditions, tends to gainsay that mindset.  Evolution, and its teaching, has proven the central issue of this conflict.

Vilifying public education, then, proved an easy tool towards prominence within the American right.  David Horowitz has made it into a means of becoming rather well-to-do, for the target is big and broad, and has little ability to fight back effectively (education was not built as an army–something Horowitz, who equates politics to war, understands quite well).  The “problem” with American education is simply a creation of political activists, for the solution, as Eggers and Calegari point out, is simple… is conveniently ignored, for those activists don’t really want the problem to go away.

Fighting for better teacher salaries will never be enough.  We who hold to the real American traditions, ones that do spring from the Enlightenment and that were expressed by our Founding Fathers in our Constitution and other writing of the time, need to start fighting for those traditions more aggressively.  Part of that struggle will lie in effectively pointing out some of the facts that we’ve politely elided, these past few decades… facts like the continuing racism of a great part of American society, facts like the paucity of the intellectual base in many of the religious movements in America.

Yes, we will offend people by bringing these up.  But it is the threat of offense that often has been used as a weapon against us, keeping us from addressing these quite real problems.

We don’t need to fight with mean spirit or with anger, or to destroy the other.  Lord knows, it’s possible to believe in God and in evolution.  Ours shouldn’t be a battle aimed at laying waste, but one of conversion.  We’ve forgotten the lessons of King and Gandhi, allowing attention to be turned from them by laughter, and  by derision of their naivete, distracting us from techniques that even those who oppose us know work.

When more of us have confidence enough in our own beliefs–not a foundational confidence, but one based on experience and experimental results–and stop simply reacting to the attacks of the conservative activists, we can start moving our society in a positive direction.

In a direction that will allow us to provide the support that our teachers need, the support that, as Eggers and Calegari point out, is the only thing that will ultimately improve our educational system.

Not to mention our country as a whole.


Aaron Barlow | Assistant Professor, New York City College of Technology.

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