Sometimes I write about the difficulties and annoyances involved in teaching at the college level, and certainly there are many. Nonetheless I like to remind myself, as many of my colleagues do, that we have it easy in some respects. More accurately, we realize that things could be worse. We could be high school or grade school teachers.
Don't misunderstand; I am not belittling people who are. My opinion is that they should get medals of some sort. Whatever they make, it isn't enough. It might be the most thankless job in an economy that is lousy with thankless jobs. There are few other jobs with a worse ratio of compensation and status relative to the workload and challenges. In recent years, the job has the added bonus of being the most popular punching bag for right wing politicians and AM radio addicts.
My job has a few advantages. I have less classroom time, with the trade-off of expectations of high research output that K-12 teachers do not have to worry about. Second, my students are adults – legally if not mentally. I can speak relatively freely to them. There are no limits on the topics I can introduce in class. I do not have to tolerate disruptive behavior or coddle them when they are lazy. Lastly, there are no parents to deal with. Helicopter parents do contact me with some regularity, but I can end all such conversations before they begin. "Sorry, FERPA. Your child is an adult and has rights that I have to respect. Bye."
For the K-12 folks, there is no such luck. Mom and Dad are on them like flies on a shit picnic.
This commentary from an award-winning K-12 principal occasionally veers into whining, but overall it is an excellent snapshot of the real problems facing the educational system. Parents act as defense attorneys for their children (or increasingly hire real attorneys to bring to parent-teacher conferences). When teachers tell parents "Billy is a disruptive little bastard" the first reaction is to argue with the teacher. They defend their child – and, of course, by implication they're defending themselves from the charge of bad parenting. Some parents would rather try to get a teacher fired or file lawsuits against the school than accept the fact that, you know, maybe Billy isn't a brilliant, perfect, and special little snowflake.
This all takes place against the backdrop of a job with mediocre compensation and a new wave of politicians attempting to eliminate job security, benefits, and what little discretion teachers have by instituting testing-based, mandatory curricula. Where do I sign?
Seriously, who do we expect to do this job? What is the sales pitch supposed to be? "Become a teacher today, and tomorrow you can be screamed at by soccer moms while Glenn Beck tells his listeners to lynch you and the state legislature requires you to teach creationism!" True, I still see college undergraduates majoring in education in droves, possibly for lack of better alternatives in other professions. Is that what this is all about – making every alternative in the economy so distasteful that people will meekly accept whatever their employment situation throws at them?
The sad part is that the most common reaction among teachers is resigned cynicism. Just give everyone an A so I don't have to listen to the parents bitch – the parents are always "right" in the end anyway. Don't worry about the fact that the kids aren't learning anything – just play along, teach to the state tests, and try not to get fired. Don't show any initiative, because initiative can only be punished.
And then we wonder why teachers aren't doing a better job. Why aren't they magical alchemists who can turn these ingredients – severe budget cuts, uninterested students, aggressive Pageant Moms, and constant political and rhetorical efforts to make public school teachers villains – into gold?