Slate Magazine’s Ann Hulbert wrote a very interesting piece on teachers’ image last week, “Back to School: Could Teachers Become the New Lawyers?” The title strikes me because I’ve said to fellow educators bemoaning how some students don’t seem to respect us that, “If we want them to give us respect automatically, we should be their lawyers instead of their teachers.” As I type that, I realize how bitter it sounds. I guess I’ve just accepted that since American respect often pairs itself with careers that are well-paid, I would have to earn students’ respect rather than be granted it.
Hulbert writes about the new wave of Hollywood films on teaching that are shifting the teacher archetype: “Strangely, perhaps, the spectacle of obsessive administrators and anxious teachers in the trenches…just might help buttress a field that could use some defeminizing. High-pressured and punishing—of such macho qualities is social cachet often built in the world of work. Nowhere…do you hear anyone touting the familiar (female- and family-friendly) perks of the profession: the long summer months off, the seasonal breaks, the 3 o'clock dismissals, the heartwarming kids…The scene is more reminiscent of, say, the Union army, beset by struggles and squabbles within the ranks, yet striving to make slow headway on divisive home ground.”
The “defeminizing” point makes me wince. I suppose since my father taught challenging students, I didn’t grow up with a “female” or “easy” image of teaching. (Really, for the life of me, all I can think of in keeping with her reference is Little House on the Prairie. Has teaching adolescents housed by the thousands in one building ever been easy? Would I have ever eaten an apple I found placed anonymously on my desk?) I don’t think the description of teaching she provides is new; more likely, the kinds of teaching conditions she feels foster “macho qualities” in teachers have grown more prevalent.
Okay, disagreements aside, Hulbert is right that Americans need to understand more about what it takes to teach well. I’ve tossed about the theory that, like jury duty, all citizens should be required to do some “public school duty” every few years. Even if all they do is collect equipment after gym class, issue tardy slips during passing time, and monitor the cafeteria, I feel Americans would vote for school budgets and teacher salaries with a whole new respect.
A friend of mine discussed recently that even though people claim staying home with your kids is “the most important work of all,” they still won’t think much of it on a resume. To a lesser degree, my experience with how people view teaching is similar. “You’re a teacher! How wonderful!” is what you get told at a party, but the business world is suspicious about whether or not we teachers know how to work a forty hour week. If Hollywood can change that, I say more power to them.