Posted by: emjb | May 25, 2007

Wearing down the mountain

I read so many blogs, liberal and neutral*, political and social and whatever-ial. But the one issue guaranteed to draw ireful, passionate responses out of everyone is education. It doesn’t matter if it’s about funding, or social issues, or testing and grades, or diversity, or even just what books should and shouldn’t be taught in English class. Everyone has an opinion, even people who don’t much care about anything else.

Maybe because we all had an education of some kind, and because those years make such a deep impression on us, every bully, every bad teacher, every stupid or boring class assignment is remembered with a lot of bitterness. More rarely, people talk about their good teachers who inspired them, or a class that made them think and learn more than they thought they could.

But just because you were a kid who went through school doesn’t mean you really understood what was going on there. The teacher who taught your boring class may have been burned out from trying to teach 6 groups of 30 students every day, at all levels of ability, with only 45 minutes to get the most basic ideas across. And then go home to grade 180 worksheets or tests every night. And maybe field calls from an angry parent whose kid got a B when the parent thought they deserved an A. And then find out that your union caved and you’re going to see your health insurance costs go up next year, but only get a 1% raise.

I work with ex-teachers, and they have a lot of stories to tell that no one who’s griping about the failures of public education ever seems to hear. They know about bad teachers, too, and will tell you about them. But also about being in the trenches under stresses that would send a lot of millionaire CEOs crying to Mommy. How many of us face the possibility of violence every day? Or, as this poor woman found out, the possibility of going to jail for 40 years because you didn’t know how to stop a virus-infected school computer from displaying porn spam? How many of us would enjoy being expected not just to do our jobs, but also to be legally bound to monitor our clients for signs of abuse? To not only teach, say, physics, but also manners, respect for others, discipline, and critical thinking? The good teachers try to do all that. And many of them burn out under the strain.

We treat teachers with a strange sort of scrutiny, a lot like that we use on parents. Partly because they are taking care of our kids, and partly because when we were kids, they were such huge figures in our lives.

But as adults, we need to understand that they are, and have always been, mere human beings. Teaching suffers from a number of problems other professions don’t; low pay, high expectations, the stresses of dealing with children and their issues, the way that teachers are expected not just to do their jobs, but to connect with and nurture their students. Like many female-dominated professions, it also suffers from a lack of respect and low prestige.

Maybe this is all connected. Maybe we resent having to pay them for such a demanding job because we think of them the way we think of mothers; people who, because they are female and in charge of children, should do a perfect job for no reason other than love. Who certainly should not demand a lot of money and respect for doing that job. Who should be saints without lives of their own, devoted only to their (surrogate) children’s well-being, no matter the cost to themselves.

Maybe this is why we shrug when told teachers have to buy their own supplies, hold bakesales, accept pitiful pay to do the job that is supposed to be so important. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? We’re letting them teach our precious children…how dare they complain?

I didn’t have any monstrously bad teachers, but I certainly wouldn’t say they don’t exist. Nor would I say the system itself doesn’t harbor a lot of bad environments, bad attitudes, abuse and neglect. But the teachers I remember were, by and large, trying hard to do their jobs. Some of them had weird chips on their shoulders or treated students unfairly, but even those I managed to learn something from. Many of them were forgettable. I have no idea who taught me in 7th grade English, for example. But since I didn’t fail, I must have learned something from her. I must have at least read my assignments, done my homework, taken my tests. The teachers I do remember weren’t all extraordinary, but they were committed enough to show up every day, take us through the lesson plan, try to help us when we asked questions.

I don’t want people online or anywhere to stop thinking critically about what happens in schools. It’s a vitally important question. I do want them to consider whether their expectations of teachers take into account the realities on the ground–the same realities they would want someone to look at if they were being evaluated. I would want them to appreciate just how enormous a task it is to educate every single child in the United States to the highest level of literacy, mathematical competency, and critical thinking that they can reach. We ask educators to take on a job larger and more complex than that of the military on a fraction of its budget, while taxpayers howl about paying even that much.

There is one reason that, along with librarians, teachers are my heroes. And that is: there is nothing more subversive than equal access to knowledge. Making education available to all regardless of income is one of the fragile threads that holds us from falling back into the Middle Ages. Slave owners understood the power of knowledge, which is why teaching a slave to read was once a serious offense. An educated slave is a slave who might think up a route to freedom.

Public education in this country needs a lot of work, but that work has to go beyond tearing it down or recounting our childhood traumas. It can’t be done if we don’t understand the power of even a poor education to open doors. It’s true that not enough doors are opening for not enough kids, yet. It’s true that rich kids still get a better education than poor ones, and that true equality in education may be unattainable. But it’s also true that the failures of the system are not the same thing as a failure of the ideal. Education is one of the best tools we have for creating ladders out of poverty. However we decide to fix it, it’s time we recognized how little most of us could have done without it.

*I’d be lying if I said I read any conservative ones. Heh.

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