Monday, March 07, 2011


The question of how to make our educational system better, and how good or bad it is, is very complex. There are many factors it's way too easy to ignore or trivialize, like what teachers have to do to balance the needs of many students, how funding is handled, which subjects need attention, the pros and cons of standardized testing, the changes in what skills people need and what life they can expect after leaving school, etc. It's the kind of subject that you can't really speak informedly about unless you spend a lot more time on it than most people who pontificate it even dream of doing. Instead people seize on one aspect, like how American students are uncompetitive in the world market and this is helping to weaken our economy, or how much education costs have risen, and build the entire armchair-quarterbacking argument based on it.

Having worked in education for a few years, I feel I know just barely enough to know for certain that I don't really know much of anything. When people cite the "obvious" arguments on one side or the other of any given point, I can at least suggest what the other side of the coin is, but actually weighing both sides is too much for almost all of us.

But there's one thing that really stands out for me, from my experience in the education sector, and that is the passion of teachers.

If you think about the life of a teacher, it seems really obvious that they ought to be bitter, resentful, unmotivated, and cranky. They get paid very little and invariably are expected to take their work home with them. They get almost no appreciation; their relationship with parents and students is generally either neutral or hostile, and society as a whole doesn't value them or what they do. They have to deal with an incredible range of issues, far larger than the actual subject matter that they're supposed to know. They not only have to deal with kids of varying talents and interest levels and attitudes, they have to deal with them all at once, and without ever showing favor to anyone. They have to pour on even more hours going to recertification and retraining, and many of them put in even more time on extracurricular activities, which spill into evenings and weekends as a matter of course. Heck, many of them go to work every day afraid someone's going to be carrying a knife or gun. And does the public ever adulate them, or even appreciate them? Generally, they're treated like dirt.

I'm sure there are teachers out there who are cynical, jaded, and bored, and are just doing the minimum to cash their paychecks and go home, and who can blame them. But I have never met any of those or even heard of them second-hand. Without exception, every single teacher, administrator, or staff involved in the educational system who had a hand in the mission of teaching kids, was startlingly enthusiastic, driven, positively excited about it. No amount of being dumped on, taken advantage of, or unappreciated ever seemed to dent that. They would spend hours talking about how they could do a better job, and even when they were dispirited by another round of budget cuts or another parent chewing them out for not doing the parent's job for them, they still always had their passion firmly showing for what they were there to do.

I suppose when you mistreat a profession as badly as we mistreat teachers, there's a selection process at work; anyone who wasn't positively obsessively excited about the work would leave in short order. But that doesn't diminish how amazing it is that teachers can still be so upbeat about what they do. It's a miracle we have as many of them as we do.

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