My Turn: In honor of teachers

My Turn: In honor of teachers

Dr. Robert A. Scott

It is time that we honor teachers. I venture to say that we all can identify a teacher who was a positive influence on our life’s direction. Many of us likely have teachers in our extended families.

As a university president, I was responsible for the preparation of teachers as well as other professionals. At gatherings of alumni, I would ask graduates, including teachers, about their careers. I also would call and meet with employers, including district principals and superintendents, about their needs and how well our graduates were doing.

What I learned is that teachers love what they do. However, many report that for reasons of compensation and working conditions, they are considering leaving the profession. On average, teachers are paid almost 20% less than comparable college-educated professionals. And increasingly they receive little or no affirmation from the adults in their communities.

Teaching requires much more than love of the job and student learning. To be employed, teachers must demonstrate subject matter mastery, expertise in the pedagogy of teaching, and competence in adolescent learning. All this is required to attain and maintain state certifications and licensure.

Teachers are held to high standards by the state Education Department and the local school system. Classroom effectiveness is reviewed by experienced professionals. Yet throughout the country, politicians, pundits, and parents are criticizing teachers and the curriculum that is being taught and tested.

In the case of teachers, why do amateurs feel they can tell experts what to do and how to do it? In doing so, they undermine teachers and create the conditions for an accelerating turnover in the profession.

Do they tell licensed plumbers how to fix leaks or install new sinks?

Do they tell the airline pilot how to fly the plane? Sure, we celebrate the amateur who takes over as chef at the BBQ and the Saturday golfer who hits a hole in one, but we do not seek their learned opinion on professional matters.

It is certainly the right of citizens to attend school board and community meetings and to question elected officials and hired administrators about goals, strategies, budgets, and resource use. We may question assumptions and assertions, but not substitute opinions and prejudices for the expertise of teachers and other licensed professionals.

Why is it that so many people think they are experts when it comes to teaching? Is it because they think anyone who attended school can tell a teacher what to teach and how to teach it? Do they have a low opinion of teachers because teacher salaries are among the lowest for licensed professionals?

It is, of course, likely that salaries are low because of the esteem in which teachers are held. Low compensation and lack of public respect are two of the major reasons for high turnover in teaching ranks. This turnover then causes shortages that result in desired courses not being available.

Teachers are the ones to whom we grant responsibility for preparing our children for lives beyond high school, success in careers, and fulfilling our dreams for society, all in an uncertain future.

We also expect them to provide social-emotional support for students of all ages in classrooms that post warnings about active-shooter protocols. And they have done all this during a Pandemic with remote learning the norm and not all students having the bandwidth to keep up. Few other professionals have such responsibilities or work in such an environment.

The criticisms of teachers and schools are likely related to other issues. Public schools are the only, or one of a very few, public services whose budgets are subject to public vote. Perhaps frustrations with government regulations and deficits are expressed by citizens in the one place they can vote on actual outcomes – the local school budget and local taxation.

Then again, the criticism of teachers and what is taught in public schools may be another manifestation of the increasing lack of confidence in experts in general.

Think of the unwillingness of many to wear masks and practice social distancing during the worst of the COVID pandemic. Not only did many condemn public health mandates, but they also spread misinformation about the science behind the practices recommended. The result was over a million deaths.

Expertise seems to be unwelcomed when it requests or requires someone to act not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of others. There is too much “I” and not enough “community,” i.e., showing concern and care for others as well as for self.

Another form of expert denial is related to American history. The narrative of American Exceptionalism is so ingrained that any attempt to broaden and deepen it becomes controversial.

Yes, we are a nation founded on virtuous ideals, even if not fully realized, and yes, we are a nation of remarkable accomplishments. But we should not deny the history of colonialism that took land from Native Americans, enslaved people from Africa, took freedom from Chinese and Japanese, and withheld the vote from women.

This, too, is American history.

The goal of public education and teachers is to prepare enlightened citizens. These are citizens who have the knowledge, skills, abilities, and values necessary to contribute to the nation’s continuous improvement through civic engagement, including voting. They have learned to ask questions and think for themselves, to distinguish between fact and opinion.

When we deny teachers the authority to set curricula standards, we shortchange our students. When we deny schools and libraries the authority to select books to support the curriculum, we deny our children and grandchildren an adequate preparation for exercising their rights, privileges, and responsibilities as informed, engaged citizens.

Dr. Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University, and Author, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins Press, 2018, and Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019

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