Giving teachers the respect they deserve

Jul 22, 2011

Teachers in our country rarely get the respect they deserve -- a uniquely American pathology. But this year they’ve endured not just indifference, but disrespect – and from Congressmen, no less. Teachers are now blamed not just for falling test scores, but failing state budgets and rising healthcare costs.

There was once a politician who took a different view.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance – what some scholars believe to be one of the three most important documents in the founding of America, along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence – provided funding for public schools and universities. In it, he declared, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The idea is so central to education, the University of Michigan has it engraved on the façade of its central building, Angell Hall. But few of the people walking by Angell Hall even know the line is there, or why. Ignorance makes it easy to devalue something important.

While Congress rewarded Wall Street’s “Masters of the Universe” with millions of taxpayer dollars after they ran the economy into the ground, the same politicians tell us the real economic villains are public school teachers, who educate our children for an average of $45,000 a year.

I don’t think George Orwell himself had the power to imagine such a twisted interpretation of reality.

The claim that teachers are underworked, overpaid parasites could be made only by people who have never taught. I would be hard pressed to name any group that gives more and takes less from society than do teachers – who, after all, prepare all of us for what we’re going to do next.

Even politicians.

Teaching is one of those jobs, like waiting tables or coaching sports, that everyone thinks is easy – until they try it. True, teaching is one of the easiest jobs to do poorly – but it’s one of the hardest to do well.

Part of this problem the teachers’ union brought on itself, by defending the worst teachers to the hilt, and not even allowing principals to watch their employees work without making an appointment months in advance. At my high school, one teacher set what I hope is a record by showing movies and film strips for 170 of the 180 school days.

But we also had college professors who decided teaching high school was more important. There were others who could have done just about anything they wanted – one of my English teachers had a law degree -- but chose to devote their lives to teaching.

And it wasn’t just out of noblesse oblige. When I was student teaching, I learned the job is not just demanding – it’s intellectually challenging.

But because the unions didn’t make the obvious reforms they should have, they’re at the mercy of overconfident, under-qualified politicians, who wouldn’t last a week in front of the classes I taught – let alone the inner city classrooms now packed with 35 students six hours a day, thanks to their budget cuts.

I can still name almost every teacher I’ve ever had – and I bet you can, too. But we’d be hard-pressed to name our last three Congressional representatives.

I learned about Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance from Ed Klum in U.S. history, the same year I read Orwell’s “1984” in Jim George’s class. I learned how to write from Dave Stringer and Andrew Carrigan. And I learned critical thinking from all of them – which is why I can surmise what Jefferson would think of those teachers, and the politicians who bash them.

Which brings me to my final line, something public school teachers hear far too rarely:

THANK YOU.

*CORRECTION* - An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly stated that the Northwest Ordinance was part of the U.S. Constitution.