My local Sunday paper was loaded with commentary on teachers and schools; what is wrong with them and how to “fix” them. I find it humorous in an ironic way that there are articles saying we need to pay teachers more and attract the “best and brightest” to the profession, and other articles saying teachers are paid too much and enjoy “cadillac” benefits.
My unscientific, yet observational/experiential take on the pay issue is this; teachers are seen as working with “children” and teaching is only a part-time job (with holidays and summers off). The reality is that teaching children and young adults is a tough job requiring knowledge of subject, compassion, a sense of humor, empathy, highly-developed interpersonal skills, and the ability to work with heterogeneous groups. Non-educators say the solution to the “educational crisis” in America is to hire teachers from the top third of college graduates. Sounds great, but my experience is that this is much too narrow a criteria. All the other aforementioned pieces parts of what makes a good teacher need to be there for a chance at success. I’ve worked with too many people with advanced academic credentials who lack some of the interpersonal skills needed to effectively teach. I’ve also worked with people with impeccable credentials who are excellent teachers. Isn’t it also interesting that the pundits trivialize credentialed success as a qualification for being a good teacher, yet they claim we need to hire more teachers who were academic successes? Lesson one for the pundits - stop trivializing what is needed to be an excellent teacher.
Working with children means that the results of the “how and what” of teaching won’t be evident for some years. When a student moves into adult life, will they be successful, contributing members of society? Will they be happy and mentally healthy? Shouldn’t these be part of the measure for success of education?
Watching the results of the acrimony in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana over teacher benefits is another piece of this bi-polar debate. Part of the lure to teach in a job that pays below what might be made working in a private sector job requiring equivalent credentials are the benefits that have historically been available to teachers. A decent pension and health care, these have been provided by state legislatures and through negotiations with boards of education. Now these things are under attack, especially by members of state legislatures who benefit from their own pensions and health care benefits. We are one of the very few advanced nations not to provide a minimum level of health care to our citizens. Are we really that selfish?
Finally, the old saw that teachers only work nine months of the year needs to be addressed. Honestly, school should be year-round, with a short break between quarters. I hear complaints that schools continue to operate on an antiquated factory model, yet the school year is based on an even older agricultural model. State legislatures need to face the unpopular issues and address the school year, along with how to properly fund public education.
Blaming teachers for the “crisis in education” (and I wonder how much of a crisis there really is) is like blaming bank tellers for the Great Recession. Blame can be easy to distribute, but hard to focus on those who are truly culpable.