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No Mystique, No Respect: On Valuing Teachers and Teaching

This week, a lot of people either emailed me this article or stuck it in my mailbox at school. The author, Sarah Blaine, herself a former teacher who went on to become a lawyer, vindicates our profession by pointing out a common misconception--that having been a student (and, in that capacity, having seen teachers at work) does not actually equip a person with any functional knowledge of what the profession of teaching entails, what work goes on behind the scenes, and what heart-aches and joys go into the process of trying to teach children in grades pre-K through 12. "Teaching as a profession has no mystery. It has no mystique. It has no respect," Blaine writes. Unfortunately, she's correct in all three of these observations.

I've written before about the lack of respect afforded to teaching as a career. One of the most irksome back-handed compliments a teacher can possibly receive is the assertion that he or she is somehow too "smart" to be a teacher, or the question, "But you could be so much more--what do you really want to do?" What pains me the most is when my students themselves appropriate these attitudes, having gleaned them from the adults around them. "Seriously, Miss, why do you teach here? You could be doing something so much...better," they'll say. (These conversations tend to happen when they find out about my extracurricular activities.) I tell them that I teach because this is what I want to do--that I enjoy teaching English literature, that I think free public education is one of our country's most important institutions, that I love hanging out with them. I don't think they believe me. They have been taught by the adults around them to devalue the profession of teaching, and in the process, education itself.

What irks me about this mentality isn't simply that teaching is harder than it looks--though it certainly is both more difficult and requiring of significantly more time than I think anyone outside of the profession realizes. It's equally frustrating that, though American society is content to broadly label "bad teachers" the problem in education, they also do everything possible to deter great candidates from entering the profession! Demeaning teachers, suggesting that "those who can't do, teach," or asserting that classroom teaching is a waste of an Ivy League degree--all of these statements foster a diminished valuation of education as a whole, and ensure that smart, talented college grads will look to use their skills elsewhere.

The question of what we can do to draw the best possible applicants to the field and then retain them is important in all education systems, particularly high needs schools, where new teachers face myriad challenges that, more often than not, drive them out of the classroom within three years. That's a much broader topic, which I discuss with Barnett Berry and Larry Ferlazzo here. But for now, the simplest and most salient point to draw--made eloquently by Ms. Blaine in her column--is that teachers need more respect and understanding of what our profession entails in order to better accomplish the monumentally important task of educating the nation's children.

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