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Teachers: Must we be Saints or Sinners?

Our national focus on education driven by Waiting for Superman and NBC's Education Nation programming is drawing to a close, and it leaves me with a disturbing concept of what it means to be a teacher in America today. One source is Geoffrey Canada, urging teachers to donate an extra hour a day to their schools. He was quoted as saying to one teacher, "You ought to stay until the job is done."

We have arrived at a disturbing concept of what it means to be a "good teacher" in America - especially if you choose to work in schools where the students live in poverty. When you accept this poorly paid job, you are expected to take full responsibility for the 160 students in your classes, and that means you should make yourself available to them at all hours, give up your lunch and free time, and stay at school ten hours a day. You must be "effective," which means that you are able to move their test scores up fast enough to recover the years they are behind and put them on track for admittance to a university. You must not worry about the fact that your school has no supplies and a reduced support staff, due to budget cuts, and you must use your own money to purchase supplies and even food for your students.

When you speak of your work, you may describe some incremental success you have had, but then you must acknowledge that whatever you have achieved "isn't good enough," because you still have students who are working below grade level. You must disavow the need for any job security because it sometimes means "bad teachers" are protected. You place blind faith in the administration's ability to know YOU are a GOOD teacher, and speak critically of others who cling to such protections.

This self-sacrificing stance allows you to claim the sainted title "good teacher." But of course, there can be no saints without sinners. The sinners in our schools are the teachers who arrive, put in their day's work, and clock out by 4 or 5 pm. Then they selfishly go home to their own children, and leave the school's children to fend for themselves for the rest of the day and night. They take home papers to grade, and they call parents when necessary, but they do not give their students their cell phone number. When students are below grade level and need extra help, they refer them to the after school tutoring program, rather than staying late to work with them themselves. Their students gain, on average, about a year's academic growth during their year in their class - but this is plainly immoral, because the students are below grade level, so these bad teachers are not closing this gap. Their classrooms are sometimes lacking in supplies because they do not spend much of their own money to buy them, instead selfishly spending their money on clothing and food for their own families.

I do not know if this duality is related to America's strain of religious beliefs, but it reinforces a very simplistic view of our profession. Coupled with the fact that our profession has traditionally been mostly female, this suggests that teachers are being asked to be society's self-sacrificing saints, taking on for all of us the burden we are unwilling to bear.

I have no problem with teachers who do many of the things the saintly teachers do. I have done many of them myself. But if I choose to spend my weekend taking my students on a field trip, or stay after school to help them with their homework, or spend part of my meager salary on classroom supplies, I want it to be out of choice, rather than to preserve my "goodness."

It is true that without extraordinary effort, students in poverty will have trouble succeeding in large numbers. But I have several problems with placing all this responsibility on the shoulders of our teachers.
• First of all, I remain skeptical about the viability of sending all our students, or even significantly more of them, to four year colleges. I see statistics that indicate the areas with the most job growth continue to be service sector positions, so I wonder if the jobs for college graduates will actually be there, and with costs rising, I think many high school students drop out when college admittance is made out to be the sole purpose for their education.
• Teachers have families as well, and ought to be allowed to enjoy and nurture them. They ought to be able to spend their spare time with their own children, and likewise not be expected to sacrifice their own family's budget to buy classroom supplies.
• Many students DO need extra help, but this should be organized and funded by the school system, and not rest on unpaid volunteer hours from teachers.
• A teacher's primary job ought to be to organize and engage his students in powerful lessons. This is a challenging thing, which requires imagination, collaboration with colleagues, engagement in professional growth, and time to plan. If a teacher is taxed with late days tutoring, he is not going to have the energy to plan an innovative and exciting curriculum.
• The very idea that schools are the only solution to intractable poverty in society seems a flawed one. If we simply produce more children ready for college, but college costs more than families can afford, what have we accomplished? If we produce more college graduates, but the jobs that used to be the foundation for the middle class are evaporating, how has this helped?
• We seem to have turned a basic concept on its head. Our schools ought to prepare students for a bright future that beckons them. But in our neighborhoods of poverty, no such future beckons. Unemployment and hunger surround these schools, but they and their teachers are expected to conjure hope up out of thin air.

We are a profession suffering a bit of traumatic shock from the public assault to which we have been subjected. There is most likely a political/economic drive underway to strip from us the due process protections we have secured in some states. We have even seen teachers publicly named as ineffective by a major newspaper.

Individual teachers may be able to reach the level of self sacrifice that has been demanded for a few years, but this is not sustainable over a career. We see evidence of this in the very high turnover rates in many high-poverty schools, and in charter schools such as KIPP especially, where ten to twelve hour days are the norm.

We need to reclaim and reassert what it means to be a good teacher. Of course good teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of our students. But we cannot be expected to deliver entire communities from the grip of generational poverty singlehandedly. And we must reject the need to be martyrs, sacrificed to atone for the sins of our selfish society.

What do you think it means to be a "good teacher" today? Should we redefine this?

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