I was going to say that the title of this post was metaphorical, but anymore, it may not be.
Putting that aside for now, however, teachers today face any number of other difficulties they don’t deserve, some of which have existed for decades and others that have come to the forefront in recent times.
My respect for teachers is immense. I wanted to be a teacher when I was a child. My father, though, wanted me to be an engineer. My mother finally got him to stop trying to channel me away from teaching, but by that time he already had. Not that I ever became an engineer, however. (I might have been able to become one, but I think I would have been a very unhappy engineer.)
Still, even though I never became a teacher (unless you include two years of teaching English to first-year college students while going to grad school), I became involved with education throughout much of my life as a writer. I worked for magazines that included Today’s Catholic Teacher, Early Childhood News, Private School Administrator, School Planning and Management, and Technology and Learning. I edited textbooks on religion, English, and social studies. Education was in front of me at every turn.
The obstacles that teachers face these days, though, can’t be alleviated by articles on classroom decoration tips or advice on self-care (important as that is).
Teachers put up with low pay and out-of-pocket expenses for supplies that they shouldn’t have to buy. They put up with crumbling schools that lack basic necessities like heating and air conditioning. They put up with old textbooks or newer ones that are prescribed by committees who have few choices, thanks to the power of states like California, New York, and Texas. They have to teach in school buildings that may have lead in the drinking water or lack ADA-compliant facilities. (Two years ago, a report said that 2/3 of US schools weren’t up to ADA standards.)
Not enough people going into education – and why would they? The pay is low (and staying low) and respect is not a given. The general public does not understand the process of education, or they think that the way it was in their day is the way it should always be. They place too much emphasis on test scores, meaning that teachers must “teach to the test” instead of allowing children to learn in more fruitful, organic ways such as project-based learning.
There is scientific evidence that small class sizes are better for student learning, but finding the money and the number of educators required for that is not forthcoming. In fact, subjects that aren’t considered “academic” enough, such as art, music, and drama, are being sacrificed. Even recess for grade-school children is no longer guaranteed in order to spend more time in the classroom, despite the fact that physical activity is vital to a child’s health and development.
Many of the difficulties facing teachers were recently highlighted when approximately 4,500 teachers, librarians, counselors, school nurses, and other support personnel in Columbus, Ohio, went on strike. It was the first time since 1975 – nearly 50 years – that they had done so. The teachers’ demands included pay raises of 8% (they were granted only 4%, despite a much higher rate of inflation). But many of the issues they brought forward related to infrastructure issues such as the lack of functioning heating and cooling systems in the schools, particularly since the weather has been so hot and continues to be. And the teachers went back to school after a week on strike, despite the fact that only a “conceptual agreement” was reached. It included no promises of spending on infrastructure, though that was the cause that received the most complaints and publicity.
And what were the repercussions of the strike? The district hired 600 substitute teachers to replace the 4,000 or so teachers and fill in for online classes. In addition, the movement to allow public, taxpayer-supported funds to be used for private school tuition was enhanced, which would leave even fewer dollars in the public system to effect changes. An official for the Center for Christian Virtue, which placed billboards around Columbus promoting private schools, castigated the striking teachers: “These schools are hitting kids while they are down. After all kids have been through, being blocked out of their schools for years [a reference to the COVID crisis], and having just failed attempts at remote teaching, the fact that they would strike now is the ultimate blow to kids,” Baer said.
The Twitterverse reacted as well. While many tweets supported the strike, there were also ones that decidedly didn’t. “For the 2nd time in 3 years, Columbus City Schools athletics have been paused for all Fall sports. Both sets of soccer teams looking to have off campus workouts while the teachers are on strike. Pray for all CCS students and athletics during this difficult time” was one opinion. Another said, “Give them 48 hours and fire them. Their PR is mindless, the kids would rather be in school and their extracurricular activities. If the teachers cared about the kids, they’d still be teaching.”
Nor is Columbus the only place where these battles are playing out. New York City is engaged in a court case over proposed slashed budgets advocated by the mayor, who is a proponent of charter schools that sap funds from the public schools.
I could also mention the flack that teachers are now receiving from lawmakers and parents who want to control what teachers teach, what books they have in their libraries, and even what they’re allowed to say. And don’t get me started on the let’s-arm-the-teachers thing. There’s not enough room here for my outrage. Maybe another time.
So, here’s the bottom line. Teachers have continued to work with purpose, care, intelligence, and dedication. They have also continued to be underpaid, overworked, under-respected, and over-criticized. That they have continued to do so is a tribute to their strength and resilience. But how long must we expect them to do so? Sure, our kids deserve better than what they are getting through our broken education system – but our teachers deserve better too. When teachers get what they need to do their jobs as well as they are able, it’s a win-win. I don’t know why that should be controversial.
As John Steinbeck said, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
Teachers are indeed the artists and architects of the future. We owe them a little more slack and a lot more support.