Teachers Have It Easy.
In my life I’ve discovered that the easiest jobs are all those jobs that I don’t have to do. A few weeks ago I brought my Babicz Spider acoustic – electric guitar to my favorite music shop, Music Central, with a minor problem I needed help fixing. The fitting to the ¼” outlet for an instrument plug. It was loose and if it wasn’t fixed, eventually it would fall off. I reached in the soundhole and into the body of the guitar to try to tighten the nut, but couldn’t get my arm all the way in and it wouldn’t tighten. So I took the guitar to Billy, the bright young tech at Music Central.
Billy popped the outside bushing off with a little twist, put only his hand into the body, not his entire arm, and pulled the unit that I was struggling trying to tighten out of the soundhole and held it outside of the guitar body. He then ran the nut on the unit down to near the end, popped it back into the soundhole and through the hole at the bottom of the guitar, and then put the bushing back on and tightened it with a quick little twist. It was fixed! Quickly, correctly, perfectly. That was so easy! I could have done that. I could have, but I didn’t. Without knowing how to do it, or being able to figure out how to do it, the job was impossible. But it looked easy. It was easy for Billy because he knew what he was doing and in the process he taught me a valuable lesson: I”m not mechanical so bring mechanical jobs to someone who is.
Now for the “easy” job of teaching children: It’s a job I know well, I worked in public education for many years as a school psychologist. I know how “easy” it is. I hope I can find the words to adequately express this insight. The joy of the job made even softer by lofty salaries, incredibly generous benefits and tenure. Who needs tenure anyway? I’ll begin with some examples of life in the easy lane.
My friend Susan is a Kindergarten teacher: can it get any easier than that? Her job is to teach basic reading, writing, math, social skills, conflict resolution, hygiene, work and study skills, tools and habits, deal with cuts, bruises, tears and the joy of being five years of age (the “joy” of the kids that is). Kindergarten teachers were also the best ally I had in identifying kids who were struggling with all sorts of issues so an effective intervention could be enacted. In child development, early intervention is critical even though a lot of administrators lived by the principle of “if nobody notices it’s broke, don’t fix it.”
It’s so easy. Any of us would welcome 23 such delightful kids to be in our care for 7 hours a day, every day. Would we be able to teach them at the same time? I doubt we’d be able to get a word in over the all the chatter and while you’re chasing down one runaway child, four more have broken loose. They’re little kids, it happens. OK, so maybe Susan doesn’t have it so easy, but Meg does.
Meg is a Special Education Teacher in an elementary school. She does some work in a classroom with another teacher as “in-class support” where she works primarily with children who are “classified” and have an “IEP” (Individual Education Program) that has a list of individual accommodations and modifications that the child needs to receive a “Free Appropriate Public Education” or “FAPE.” The children have a wide range of disabilities including perception problems (such as dyslexia which we don’t call dyslexia but categorize it under the much more descriptive “Specific Learning Disability” or “SLD” (who comes up with these names and how much do they get paid?) which covers a huge range of neurologically based issues, blind and visually impaired, communication impaired, orthopedically impaired, emotionally disturbed, behaviorally disturbed, deaf and hearing impaired, traumatic brain injury cases, autistic and the list goes on. No, it’s not easy either.
What about the lovely, well humored and energetic Jasmine, one of the greatest English teachers I’ve ever known inspiring her 14 year old high school freshman to put aside the tendencies to chat, gossip, fantasize, text constantly (under the desk of course), sleep, and just being teens. We all know how easy it is to deal with our own teenagers (those of us who have or had them or once were one), so dealing with twenty-five or so at a time must be twenty-five or so times easier. Teaching them to clearly express themselves and being literate is the goal of Language Arts (not English) in our schools? In a pig’s ass it is. The goal is to get your students to exceed the minimum standards on the 11th grade standardized tests, the God Almighty HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment).
No, it’s not easy, it’s damn hard work. And it doesn’t pay well, that’s a myth. In order to teach you need a college degree and in case you’ve been a sailor marooned on a remote island in the Philippines since the end of World War II, you’ve probably heard that college is expensive. It’s a big investment and the return on the investment is small, especially when compared to others with similar degrees. Why is there a pay disparity? Because historically, it’s “women’s work” and this pay disparity mirrors the societal pay disparity between men and women. I’ll take that to public debate any day.
It’s not easy and it doesn’t pay well, so why does that justify tenure? That doesn’t justify tenure, but I think this does: politicians stink. There’s nothing novel or new in this, those in position of power broker that power. It’s been going on as long as humans have agreed to have governing bodies. Politicians reward supporters and those who comply and punish those who oppose and resist. Tenure came into being to put a barrier against such political abuse. Without this, I have little doubt that the job of someone who opposed the political power would be given to someone who supported it. I have not only witnessed such conduct, I have experienced the harsh reality of this. It’s true.
Politicians have enacted laws, rules and regulation that not only direct curriculum, but specifically how something is to be taught. All in politics boils down to procedures. You’re told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. In spite of this dictatorial approach the politicians don’t accept the results as their own doing, unless the results are good of course. If we fall short in our education, as we have been doing in recent years, they argue and look outside of themselves for an answer. It’s the teachers on the block, not the authors of the grand plan. Among other things, our political leaders have failed in understanding the difference between blame and responsibility: blame is focused on who caused it, responsibility is focused on who has to do something about it.
We pass laws and enact abundant procedures. Procedures are the arch enemy of thinking and the handmaiden of mediocrity. I’m not sure of the meaning of what I just wrote but it sounds good so I’m sticking with it. Oh, what the hell, I’ll take that to public debate too. I’m not saying that procedures are without purpose, but when they become substitutes for wisdom, energy and passion they become ineffective hopping through procedural hoops in order say that we did what we were told to do. Procedures usually represent our best attempt to clarify the minimum acceptable standard, but to many the floor and the ceiling become remarkably close to one another. There’s not much room to stand up in there.
Teaching isn’t easy. So much has changed in a generation. Technology has revolutionized everything, so much more needs to be taught today in order to have children prepared to compete in a very competitive world. So much has changed but I suspect child psychology, adolescent psychology and the psychology of power hasn’t. Neither has the politician’s irresistible tendency to enact laws, poorly written, overflowing with meaningless procedures and randomly enforced. But then again, they have it easy.
Tomorrow I’ll get back to blind and visually impaired musician stuff, but for now I’ll part by quoting (or perhaps slightly misquoting) Shalem Alechem, a satirical writer and humorist in the Yiddish Theater in New York in the late 1800’s who I’m proud to say, occupies one of the limbs in my family tree: “Life can be hard, but you have to go on living, even if it kills you.”
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So what’s your opinion? I’d love to hear from you. Let your opinion be heard. Write to me or reply on this blog. Be Heard. Prof. Dave