I put down the papers I had been collecting and looked at him. I couldn’t find the words. It wasn’t that I couldn’t answer the question. It was that I couldn’t believe he had asked it. It was clear to me that he thought of me as a disappointment, as someone who had, somehow, fallen short.
It’s true: I never intended to be a high school teacher, perhaps because I saw how tirelessly my mother had worked. And, in certain social circles, when I’m asked what I do, I respond with, “I’m just a teacher.” Because somehow, in our great history, we decided that teaching is a profession that doesn’t warrant the same respect as other professions. I think the motto goes something like this: He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches. (Really, George Bernard Shaw? Really? From this moment on, I’m swearing off Pygmalion.)
Sure, I could blame politicans and legislators, NCLB and high-stakes testing. But the root of the problem hits much closer to home, whether we care to admit it or not. I mean, my own father winced (not quite cringed) when I mentioned that I was considering the idea of becoming a teacher. And if we’re not willing to teach our children to respect the profession, then we shouldn’t expect things to change any time soon.
We wait in an examination room with an ailing toddler. In walks a woman dressed in a white coat or scrubs, wearing a stethoscope around her neck. We believe she’s a doctor. Or we get rear-ended on Highway 98, and a man shows up wearing a blue uniform with shiney boots and a gun on his hip; we assume he’s a police officer.
But when a woman stands with a textbook at the front of her classroom (that she, most likely, decorated entirely with her own money), we need more evidence. We need to be convinced. This seems strange, considering that most young pupils love their teachers, most young pupils fully trust their teachers. They haven’t yet learned to be cynical.
In August of this year, I attended Parent Night at my daughter’s elementary school. We sat in miniature desks as the teacher introduced herself and explained her expectations for the year. I squirmed in my seat as she addressed a barrage of raised hands, as she was pushed into describing (defending) her teaching practices. I chewed on my fingernails, wishing I could jump in front of her to deflect the bullets, to tell these all-knowing parents they had no idea how good they had it. I wanted to remind them that it was pushing nine o’clock at night, and she had been there since shortly after six that morning. (A teacher friend once told me, “Teaching is the only profession where, when you work overtime, you actually get paid less.”)
They didn’t smile back at her when she smiled; the corners of their mouths forced themselves downward. Their brows furrowed with skepticism. This woman that stood before her Smartboard looked like a teacher, but was she one? A real one?
I’ve had similar experiences at our Back to School night during the first week of classes each year. More than once, I’ve stood at that podium, undergoing a kind of interrogation concerning my mixed-abilty sophomore class: How do you propose you’re going to teach honors and regular simultaneously? (Ha! As if I had anything to with scheduling.) Or, concerning my Advanced Placement class: What has been your passing rate on the AP Exam since you’ve taught here? And how many years have you taught AP?
And, more than once, other parents have felt the need to come to my defense. One even got up out of her seat, saying, “Ms. Lavelle has taught all three of my kids; she knows what she’s doing.”
But that’s not my point. My point is this: I understand that there are bad teachers, just like there are bad doctors, bad cops and bad directors of the CIA. And, of course, if your child has been mistreated, that situation should certainly be addressed. But we’re not all bad. We’re not all out to get you (or your kids). Please don’t sit in a parent conference and verbally abuse and berate us when you’ve been willing only to hear one side of the story.
Because, truly, there’s only so much we can do. Education is not only a teacher’s job; it’s a parent’s job, too. Did you know that we assign reading and your kids don’t do it? (You should have known it was assigned because we posted it on Edline.) And the zero they received on that quiz (which you knew of because we post EVERY grade for EVERY assignment on Edline) was because they hadn’t read? If you asked them first, they might have told you that. But instead, you emailed me. You assumed that I had done something wrong.
Did you know that, during homeroom, they copy each other’s homework and call it “teamwork?” That they call it “sharing?”
Did you know that while I’m teaching, they have their phones out on their desks, and they’re busy tweeting? (They’re not on Facebook anymore because you are. You might want to think about following them on Twitter.) And then they ask me to explain, again, what I’ve already explained. Twice.
Did you know that, even though they’ve disrupted my class, I’ve written them glowing college recommendations? That I’ve spent my evenings revising multiple drafts of their college essays?
I never disrespected a teacher because my mother was one. And I’m almost certain that my daughter will never disrespect a teacher because I’m one. I just hope she doesn’t want to become one. Not because it’s not a high aspiration (it is), but because I don’t want her to work that hard only to be abused by the very people she’s working for.
Parents and teachers should be on the same side. We should want the same thing. Why is the divide so deep and so wide?