The Case for Education (or, teachers as panhandlers?)

Guess what? There is a nationwide teacher shortage.

Surprised?

I’m not. I’m not the least bit surprised, because I AM an educator. But all those non-educator types – you know, the politicians, the reporters, the educational philanthropists – they seem quite surprised. They even write articles about teacher shortages, wondering what they can do to boost enrollment in teacher education programs!

These are the same people who create foundations and think tanks designed to make educational decisions without consulting educators first! Why? Because they know better! They know better than the classroom teacher what it takes to motivate a child, to corral a bunch of excited 3rd graders, to prevent the next dropout, to teach a recent immigrant Algebra in a non-native language. They are smarter and wiser and more patient than those of us in the trenches. And yet, they are completely baffled by high teacher attrition and graduates who eschew careers in education.

Before you misinterpret my cynicism, I offer this disclaimer. I LOVE my job! I can’t imagine doing anything else! Being an educator was a lifelong dream of mine; I smile the minute I step foot on my campus! That being said, I would not advise my daughter (or my son, if he were interested) to follow in my footsteps.

Why not? Well, there are lots of reasons, really. But, they all boil down into one general theme: educators are given all the responsibility but none of the resources. Case in point: I recently read an article about a teacher panhandling in Oklahoma – for school supplies! This woman stood on a busy street with a sign trying to raise money for her classroom. Otherwise, the supplies would come out of her own pocket….again. Interviewed for the article, the Tulsa Public Schools superintendent, Deborah Gist, acknowledged the budget cuts, reiterating that teachers in Oklahoma have been hit particularly hard. Do you mean to tell me that the Tulsa school superintendent was not sufficiently embarrassed by the sight of one of her own teachers begging on the street, that she agreed to be interviewed?

How does this not mortify every single American citizen? Instead, this teacher is filmed laughing and smiling, waving at passing cars, while the reporter acts like this is perfectly normal – as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with begging for school supplies! To add insult to injury, the teacher serves low income students, who typically suffer disproportionately when money is tight. Don’t her students deserve better? Doesn’t the teacher deserve better?

The kicker is, this teacher will be held accountable (ahhh…accountability – the new buzz word for “data we can use to blame teachers”) for student outcomes when ALL of the variables except one (her teaching) are beyond her control. For example:

Educators don’t control where a student lives: I have had students who lived in the family car, in a hotel, doubled up with friends and relatives, and in a neighborhood where gunfire was their “lullaby.”

Educators don’t control what a student eats: Some students come to school hungry and may not even eat on weekends, most do not eat family dinner together, and a good number of students are addicted to sugar and/or caffeine (which causes them to be edgy, hyper, and irritable, and then crash).

Educators don’t control what happens from birth to age 5: Many students enter Kindergarten or first grade without basic skills – they don’t know their numbers or letters, they have no social skills (like sharing or taking turns), they have poor eye-hand coordination, and they haven’t been read to.

There are lots of other variables that are out of our control, not the least of which include whether the student gets enough sleep, has the time and place to complete homework, studies before exams, has access to a computer and/or internet….you get the picture.

A study in The Urban Review entitled “Why Bright Students Won’t Teach,” by Barnett Berry revealed at least one surprising result – salary wasn’t one of the primary (de)motivators. Instead, graduates cited “frustrating working conditions, bureaucratic requirements, the lack of professional control, and few opportunities for intellectual growth.” The other surprise is that this article was published in 1986. Sadly, not much has changed in the 30 years since then.

The bottom line is that educators are expected to be miracle workers – to (successfully) teach, love, protect, support, guide, and discipline their charges – but they are, essentially, expected to do so with one arm tied behind their back. As Robert Fulghum said, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our Air Force has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

He’s right, but it’s not just about the money. It’s about the respect.