School Talk

Stop Talking About Teachers Like They Are All the Same

As a former teacher and school committee member and as the mother of three school-aged children, the lazy and often propaganda-laden way of speaking about teachers as some sort of monolith has always bothered me. Not only is it intellectually dishonest but it directly impedes well intentioned efforts to professionalize the sector. Teachers aren’t identical widgets—but that is how the system often treats them.

It is dangerous to speak about people in any group as a monolith because it will inevitably show itself to be based on a lie. Whether it’s women’s groups or celebrities directly saying or implying that all women support abortion or dogmatic feminists saying that all men are toxic, these sweeping generalizations never move us forward or get us any closer to yes. On the contrary, they widen the gulf between people of different opinions and make persuasion or a meeting of the minds virtually impossible.

This ‘monolithic talk’ about teachers is especially acute during election seasons. Presidential hopefuls, union leaders, and many in the media rely on simple, albeit misleading, messages. We would never know the huge disparity among the nation’s 3.6 million teachers when it comes to knowledge of their subject, salary, and cultural competence if we only listened to CNN soundbites about strikes and school supplies. When we hear that “teachers are under attack” or that “teacher bashing” is on the rise, it doesn’t even make sense. Every parent knows that some teachers seem to have been sent from heaven, lots are mediocre, and a few are not only god-awful but even cruel. And abusive. And racially offensive. And an indelible stain on the very good and hard work of so many who are unfairly lumped in with the worst of the worst.

In recent weeks, there has been an abundance of examples that show why speaking about teachers as a monolith is dangerous and ultimately harmful to a community and its students. Texas teacher Georgia Clark thought she was sending private tweets to the President Trump when she asked him to help round up and get rid of all the undocumented students in her school. And it has since been reported, that this was not the first time that this now fired teacher from Fort Worth has spoken about her immigrant students in ugly and offensive ways. It seems that Mrs. Clark missed the memo that the students in her school have the legal right, a right upheld by the Supreme court in Plyler v Doe, to attend school and be treated the same as anyone else. The ruling also makes it clear that schools cannot ask students about their immigration status or report them or family members to federal immigration authorities.

Please don’t lump my 4th grader’s wonderful teachers in with that woman. They deserve better than that.

We recently saw a group of three first grade teachers and one principal smiling for a photograph while holding up a noose because their world view and lived experience led them to believe that posing for that photo was not only acceptable, but worthy of sharing with the whole staff for a laugh via email. It of course ended up on social media and they have all been suspended, with pay.

But they aren’t alone. Two non-tenured teachers in New York were fired in March for a display of nooses they hung on the wall of their classroom with the description “back to school necklaces.” The third teacher, who does have tenure, was suspended with pay pending a hearing.

Please don’t lump my 8th grader’s phenomenal Social Studies teacher from last year in with these ignorant women. He deserves better than that.

And just this week a special education teacher from Gary, Indiana surprised his student, a boy with autism, with the “2018-2019 most annoying male student” award. According to his father, the student is nonverbal, occasionally rocks back and forth and can become easily emotional. The teacher presented the boy with this trophy in front of fellow students, parents, and the principal.

It’s worth noting that the school’s name is mis-spelled on the trophy. Kind of annoying, eh?

Please don’t lump my former teacher, Mr. Murphy, who just passed away at 83 and worked as an educator for four decades, in with this man. Murph deserves better than that.

And so do the countless teachers who treat students with dignity and respect every single day. The teachers who believe in the student on whom everyone else has given up. The first year teacher in Alabama who believes that her her students, despite the poverty that surrounds them, can and will crush their state tests. The teacher from Colorado who took his orphaned student in to live with him so the that the boy would have a better chance of getting the kidney he desperately needs. The teacher who flags me down at a baseball game to tell me that the little girl who arrived to her 3rd grade classroom in September unable to read is now reading at grade level. The teacher who says “you can do it” when the world keeps yelling “no you can’t.” The teacher devoted to high expectations and to the promise that students are truly prepared for what comes next when they cross that graduation stage at the end of 12th grade.

At the very least, the best teachers deserve the respect and dignity of not being lumped in with the dregs of their profession—they deserve to shine high above those who have no business spending their days with other people’s children.

What do you think?

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