Familiarity, Timing and the Art of Teaching

Charles M. Blow’s September 2 Op-ed column in the New York Times, In Honor of Teachers,” brought back memories and motivated me to revisit a piece of writing that has appeared, most recently, I believe, in 2005, in various iterations on opinion pages since 1978.

Here it is, again—new and improved for 2011:

How have members of a noble profession found themselves so maligned, and, when compared with many other professions, so poorly paid? The complex answer is at least partially rooted in familiarity, timing and the art of teaching.

Teaching is the most familiar profession. Everyone deals with teachers in elementary, middle and high school.

If familiarity breeds contempt, it’s easier to find fault with and criticize teachers after 12 years of ongoing contact than it is after only occasional dealings with other professionals.

Teachers affect us while we’re going through the challenges of childhood and trials of adolescence, when we think we know it all, but when we know very little – at most, less than we ever will again. They give us work to do when we would rather be doing something else.

Most other professionals provide services that help us with specific, limited problems. We go to them for help when we think we need their expertise; we go to teachers when we’re told to in order to learn everything our culture and society believe we need to know in our early years.

Our perception of the student-teacher relationship is often one of forced compliance. Teachers require that we read, write essays, solve equations, interpret history, experiment with science, learn to think for ourselves, speak in public, and behave appropriately whether we want to or not (feel free to add anything I left out of that list).

The salary issue is a direct result of the perception that some adults, many of whom still rely on basic skills developed during those first 12 years of formal schooling, have of teachers’ worth and importance. This perception results directly from the above-mentioned familiarity and timing.

We create a cycle: Teachers “harass” us while we’re young. We perceive them as necessary evils rather than the door openers they are. Who cares if they’re respected or well paid?

“What about the lousy teachers?” you ask. “We have to admit there are lousy teachers.”

Absolutely. They’re out there with the lousy doctors, lawyers, accountants and nurses, and with the second-, third-, and cut-rate politicians, police officers, plumbers, cashiers, truck drivers, salespeople and telemarketers.

You name it, and someone, somewhere is doing it poorly. That’s humanity, not teachers.

Although, if we consistently gave them the compensation and respect they deserve, rather than leave to take jobs that pay more in order to feed their families, more good teachers would stay in the classroom.

Who knows? Children might grow up with healthier minds, bodies and value systems, thus lessening the crime, broken families and war that result from unbalanced beings. Law enforcement officers, soldiers, therapists and doctors might get to do more preventive and less remedial work, encouraging positive behavior and health, rather than “repairing” negative.

Of course, many excellent teachers choose to stay in education despite the money and the misconceptions. While they know the science behind learning, they recognize the art of teaching as well.

Their palettes, in addition to the subject matter, include a heart of humor, a mound of morality, an abundance of ethics, a canister of communication, an understanding of understanding, a dose of discipline, an order of authority, a lot of love and a genuine interest in civilization and the responsibility that all children shoulder as they grow in their attempts to continue it.

That’s a tall order, but every teacher who understands the true meaning of his or her title believes that the children are worth it.

Still not convinced? Walk into a room of 25 first-, seventh- or twelfth-graders. Teach them for a year (sorry, a one- or two-day visit without any responsibility won’t cut it).

Some of the students you meet are academically gifted, some have severe learning difficulties, some love school, some abhor it, some are abused or ignored at home, some are loved, some horribly spoiled.

Some first-graders can read a bit and write some words or sentences. Others cannot read at all, and a few have no concept of the alphabet.

The seventh-graders are caught, physically, emotionally and intellectually, between childhood and young adulthood. Their bodies, minds and hearts are in flux and often on fire.

The twelfth-graders are facing work, war or college in a year, some lack basic literacy and mathematical skills, and most can argue at least as well as you can, regardless of who’s right or wrong.

In varying degrees among the grades, some are atheists, some agnostic, some nominally religious, and some guided strongly by religion. Some hunger to learn, and some see no value in school.

Some embrace their parents’ conservative, moderate or liberal views, and some are rebelling against their parents and everything else that crosses their paths.

Some smell bad, and some are impeccable. Some dress in such a way that you’d like to fail their parents for letting them out of the house—but you recognize that that’s as much about your taste and values as theirs.

Some will be easy to like, and some, it seems, will be impossible to tolerate. Some have drinking or drug problems. One has had an abortion and another may soon, but you don’t know who they are yet. Either one of them might open up to you if she feels safe.

You must provide all of them what they need to learn within their respective learning needs and styles, at their current developmental levels across multiple intelligences. You might have once believed that everyone learns the way you do, but you were wrong, so you have to do whatever it takes to reach each kid, not where you wish he or she were, but where he or she actually is.

You go home frustrated at times when you do your best and come up short; guilty at times when you feel you haven’t done your best; and elated at times—when hard work, luck, grace, and openness intersect in the moment.

Some observers will judge your competence based on standardized tests that assume the individual children you teach are identical assembly-line products. Some parents support you wholeheartedly, especially with the first-graders; some show a passing interest; some you never see; and some treat you with disdain.

You work 45-60 hours a week (if you have to ask, ask a teacher), you have papers to grade and lessons to plan over Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring breaks, and you enrich your own skills and knowledge over the summer across both specific content and developmental issues.

You understand fully what you do, and you won’t complain. But you won’t be a doormat either.

You teach.

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