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Suffering Teachers Can't Be Good Teachers

It's time to talk--again--about this myth that teachers need to run themselves ragged for the pure and holy aim of helping The Children learn. The cherished legend of the teacher who devotes 24/7 to being accessible to her students, never taking time to refresh her own intellect or spirit. The martyr.

Teaching is not, and should not be, missionary work, rescuing children from their otherwise pre-determined fate as illiterate and ignorant. Teaching should not be construed as heroically saving one life at a time, under dangerous and distasteful conditions.

When our brave colleagues in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona post pictures of their embarrassing pay stubs, late-night second jobs and disgusting faculty bathrooms, we need to pay attention. As Peter Greene writes, in a don't-miss piece on teachers striking:

Teachers strike because they are out of options. They strike because the other side won't negotiate in good faith. They strike because they feel dismissed and disrespected. They strike because their work conditions have become awful, with no relief in sight. They strike because they feel the future of their profession and their school are in peril. They strike because they can't think of any other way to make things better.

Teacher walkouts are the ultimate outcome of wringing every drop of energy, patience and creative juice out of a well-meaning workforce.

Ideally, teaching is fully professional work, involving a researched knowledge base, careful training and field preparation, induction and mentoring protocols and the rewards of collegial sharing and personal growth, in addition to the satisfaction of knowing one is shaping the nation's future citizens. An adequate salary and benefit package would help, too.

Without all of these in place, we can't expect high-quality candidates to be attracted to teaching, even in highly desirable states and cities. Which makes policy initiatives like Arizona's decision to eliminate the need for teacher training, licensure and certification incomprehensible. Not only will real children be harmed by untrained teachers, the fully qualified teachers already in the building will be forced to picked up the slack created by clueless educators trying to find their way.

The teachers who are raising their voices and taking employment risks right now are saying, loud and clear, that they are unable to do their best work FOR OUR CHILDREN. They have persisted, and adapted, scrimped and scrounged and worked around barriers for the cause of giving kids a good education. But they can't do it anymore.

We don't need edu-pundits like Rick Hess getting sniffy, saying that Oklahoma's walkout 'is quickly becoming detached from efforts to ensure that dollars are spent responsibly' and that 'managerial discipline' needs to be imposed. If anyone's been responsible and disciplined (not to mention persevering and faithful), it's OK teachers.

And we especially don't need articles like this one, from Education Post (the Sinclair News of education journalism), which advises teachers in unheated Baltimore classrooms to just buck up and teach. The author, Lynnea Cornish, claims that she taught in both unheated and overheated classrooms, relying on thermal underwear and Uggs or ice pops to make things bearable.
Cornish's core message seems to be: If I could do it, you can, too, you whiny malcontents. (No advice for the children who come to school without boots and mittens, by the way.)

I doubt if there's a teacher in America who doesn't have at least a half-dozen stories about teaching with no heat/air-conditioning, no materials, inadequate supplies or desks, filthy unhygienic classrooms, way too many children and zero guidance from school leaders. For some of us, these conditions are temporary. For others, they're the norm.

What's happening now is an unmistakable call: Suffering teachers need help to do a better job for the children entrusted to their care.   

Want better schools? Pay attention.

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