The teachers’ strike in Chicago put a spotlight on an issue that had already been the focus of much political attention. Earlier, the state of Wisconsin was in the news because of a law passed there limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employees, teachers among them. And teachers have borne the brunt of widespread dissatisfaction in general, given the current state of public education.
We have a long history in this country of looking to education as a solution for social problems. In a country built by immigrants, a compulsory public education system became the way of making everyone an “American” and building a cohesive allegiance to national ideals and values. Teachers were highly valued as purveyors and symbols of national goals.
In more recent times, education was thought to be the vehicle by which various social ills could be addressed. During the Johnson years, the “war on poverty” created Headstart, an early childhood program which targeted children who were thought to be “culturally deprived”, a euphemism for families at the low end of the socio-economic ladder. The idea was that unlike in middle class families, such children were not read to by their parents and were not surrounded by books and other educational materials. As a consequence they were behind other children when they started school and kept falling further and further behind. They needed a “headstart” in order to be on a level with other children.
Along with Headstart, programs for parents were developed in which mothers were taught to read to their children and given other kinds of child rearing information. But all of this was connected to poverty. It was through education that children would become qualified for the kind of employment that would give them a leg up, and hopefully interrupt the cycle of poverty. These programs did enrich the lives of children and families, although not necessarily in economic terms. The point is that the many causes of poverty could not be corrected by education alone, or by teachers.
More recently, the decline of public education in our country has been blamed for the disparity in achievement levels between various ethnic and socio-economic groups and for our children lagging behind those of other countries, especially China. Despite this, the current economic situation has prompted many states to cover budget deficits by cutting funds for education. Teachers have been fired, class sizes have been increased, and important aspects of education such as music, art – even physical education – have been eliminated.
Yet, somehow teachers have been made the culprit as the cause of our educational decline. I think parents can identify with this phenomenon no matter how they may feel about this or that particular teacher. What is happening to teachers now very much parallels the way parents have been blamed for any of children’s problems that have a social impact, such as delinquency, drug use or teen-age pregnancy. Mothers in particular, not only have been blamed for children’s behavior, but find such criticism joined to another agenda having to do with the role of women, and the political rejection of a support system needed by mothers in the work force.
Parents are keenly aware of the difference teachers make in their children’s lives. Most of us can remember a teacher who was an important influence on us, who was an important person in our own lives. Now we can see that happening with our children. A teacher can make a difference in the way a child feels about going to school, in the skills she develops, in the way she learns, and even more important, in the way she feels about learning.
At the same time, no teacher can make up for over-crowding in classes, for shortages of books and other necessary materials, or for the impact on some children of the nature of their lives outside of school. Nor can a teacher teach in creative ways, or enrich her curriculum if she is being pressured to teach to the test, or if her own job security will be measured by children’s test achievement alone.
Of course, we are all aware that some teachers are better than others – and this should not only be measured by how well a child likes a particular teacher. Sometimes there can be a mismatch between a teacher and child – they just don’t do well with each other. On the other hand, it is also useful for children to learn that sometimes in life one has to get along even with those who might rub us the wrong way.
Undoubtedly, there are teachers who should not be teaching. Seniority is not always the best qualification for rewards or promotions. Test results alone are certainly not the best way to evaluate teachers, and our insistence on numbers as the way to measure results fails to capture the intangibles that make some teachers great. The important things one learns in life are not always revealed in test results.
Teachers feel underappreciated and under attack. As parents we know what that feels like. It is difficult in such an atmosphere to solve the problems that do exist. Teachers matter. Let’s stand behind them, not blame them for everything that is beyond their control.