Inexcusable Sympathies

There was a time when standing up for public school teachers in the United States was not merely acceptable behavior, it was actually the cultural norm. We gave our teachers accolades in the public arena, hoping that our efforts at demonstrating our united esteem might somehow make up for the low pay we afforded them. Those days are long gone now. Speaking up on behalf of teachers almost automatically provokes a response from an assortment of folks who would prefer that we keep the focus of our national education conversation on failing schools and rubber room teachers. They have their reasons, those in the chorus screaming “Demonize them!” There are the education entrepreneurs who are engaged in deadly-serious business competition against the public schools. They want–need is a better word–public schools to sit in ill repute so that the school chains in which they hold a financial stake may expand. There are the voucher folks who need the public school teachers to be bad enough to justify bundles of public monies (preferably with no strings attached) being thrown over the ivied walls of private schools. Some home school advocates cheer any bad press concerning public schools. I’m not sure why, but it may have to do with public schools being constitutionally disallowed from favoring the home team’s God. There are the union-busters who really don’t like teachers’ unions and want them to go away. The “bad teachers can’t be fired” line is a vital armament in their ideological arsenal. There are those who resent the fact that the worst-performing schools in America are reserved for minority populations who have been historically denied equal opportunity in every aspect of American life. They blame teachers perhaps because the politicians disavow responsibility. Or maybe just because they have seen more than their share of bad teachers. Over and again, the harried American teacher is collateral damage in a wider ideological war. I’ve known lots of teachers. Some were bad, some were okay, some were solid. And some were absolutely lights-out American-hero-on-a-daily-basis phenomenal. We don’t do enough to protect the good ones in the popular onslaught. We don’t usher them to safety before we carpet bomb our public schools with unhinged vitriol. Someone gave the green light to beat the candy out of bad teachers like so many pinatas, and now a bunch of idiots in blindfolds are swinging away at our education system’s fine china too, for good measure. The great thing about preaching the “bad teachers” gospel is that you can base an entire public speaking career on a handful of bad teacher anecdotes. Even if the percentage of bad teachers is lower than the percentage of doctors who hack off the wrong limbs in surgery, there will still be lots of bad teachers about whom tenacious slanderers may tell stories–ideally stories in which they magnify every gory detail.

A sense of fairness and propriety would seem to prevent this type of one-sided treatment, and it typically does among people who actually identify with teachers as human beings: namely, their peers in the middle class.But among their betters in the wealthier classes, teachers are supposed to be ridiculed and pitied. The greatest flaw, perhaps, of today’s public school teacher is the fact that he or she is so irreparably middle class. It’s tacky, really, how they drive their Korean automobiles and live in their little brick homes and watch their sitcoms. They vacation to Six Flags, for crying out loud.The most vociferous of today’s teacher critics–and also many of the men and women who currently design and enforce the policies that steamroll teachers and dismiss their concerns like so many pesky gnats–are snobs, for lack of a gentler term. Teaching is a middle class profession, sneered at by the one-percent and those who wish they were. Today’s climate of teacher-bashing was ushered in and enthusiastically promoted by folks who attended elite private schools and never sullied themselves amongst the commoners. Like so many young Buddhas, they were protected from the existential realities of the masses from earliest childhood. Unlike Buddha, however, they never sought (or received) enlightenment.And so they tee off on teachers like their daddies tee off at the country club.America’s problems with poor children, they are certain, would be solved if we would merely let the upper crust show us the way forward. And so they form organizations like Students First and Teach for America, and they lead school systems in Tennessee and Louisiana. They have little patience for the hapless and pitiable state college graduates who so very pathetically make up our nation’s teaching corps.And education reform becomes the vehicle by which the upper class blames lower class suffering on the middle class.Poverty is bad, and they believe that; but it isn’t caused by ultra wealthy Americans pulling the strings of power in their favor or guaranteeing a greater share of the good stuff for their children. Poverty is certainly not caused by greed or the complex and brutal politics of power and influence. Poverty is, in the new formulation, the gift of bad teachers to this nation. Public policy needn’t be looked at too closely; it’s the teachers who must be sifted like flour.Luckily, with billionaires suddenly having taken a violently passionate interest in educational philanthropy and Ivy League grads lining up to teach for awhile in our city schools, we as a nation may be nearing a tipping point in which the keen interest of our wealthiest (if not brightest) minds will make things better for the poorest American students by canning a bunch of middle class losers. (While, in a felicitous win-win, preserving historically low tax rates for the rich.) As a proud lifelong member of the American middle class, I will have to ask the snobs who hate teachers to please overlook my inexcusable sympathies. I don’t know any better–I went to a state university.

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  1. CT teacher October 22, 2012 at 1:15 am - Reply

    I believe the leader of Students First has been unable to deal with the fact that she could never master the art of teaching and her personal vendetta against all those that can has been masqueraded as a reform movement. She was and is a failure and therefore a whole nation of teachers must pay. Really Michelle, take a Xanas, go to therapy, smoke a joint..but leave us professional teachers alone. Your bubble will burst eventually…too bad you couldn't have been more insightful and taken responsiblity for your own personal shortcomings. Such a pity.

  2. KY teacher October 27, 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    You know, I didn't go to a state school. I went to one of the best schools in the country for my undergrad and I resent being mocked in this article. I grew up in rural New Mexico, went to a terrible school system and managed to claw my way out. I got into teaching to pay back all of my good fortune. I spent two years in Inner City Louisville and am now out in a 12.000 person town doing three different content areas. I am middle class just like you and advise you to think twice before you attack your peers with "fancier" degrees.

    I'm proud as hell to do what I do everyday and I'm grateful for the tools my education gave me to do my job well. I don't need to have it ridiculed as bourgeois. Last time I checked, the goal of education is to give our kids the tools they need to excel in this world. It's not about class-warfare so check your inferiority complex at the door.

    • Guest October 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm - Reply

      The author wasn't criticizing everyone who ever went to an elite institution. He's writing about people like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp. Their issue isn't where they studied; it's how they treat teachers. Maybe you think the way they treat teachers is okay?

  3. Tchr February 3, 2013 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    I think this article got off to a great start, but then it took a turn for the worse with the obvious bias. Now, you did bring attention to major issues, such as the shortcomings of Teach for America (the organization, not all the individuals who do it) and the dangers of voucher schools. However, your message is drowning in a sea of bitterness. KY teacher got it right when (s)he called you out on class warfare.

    And, FTR, I am barely middle class, grew up in a working poor family, and also studied at a state college. I earned my teaching license the traditional way. Throughout my career, I have seen people from the entire spectrum of the socioeconomic classes viciously attack the public school system with teachers being the first targets. (In fact, I've heard more criticisms from the lower end, but that's another story for another time.) I don't think the root of this problem is with the rich; the wealthy ones who do sneer at "commoner" teachers are just one of several in our entire population. I think the biggest thorn in our side is how we are portrayed through the media and documentaries. It's like they only focus on the bad teachers and they purposely show you a small snippet, leaving out the entire picture. Being compared with nations across the globe in an apples-to-oranges setup doesn't help, either.

    That's just my two cents.

  4. […] are tough for many, but the challenges facing American teachers are unique. There aren’t many professions who are the punching bag for what some seem to see as our nation’s a fatal and futile future. Targets hang from our back […]

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