Public Misconceptions

I wanted to sit down and write this post earlier last week, I just never got the opportunity to.

Having served the first of the next three years on the Teacher of the Year selection committee was a great experience, especially since this is my first year at this school. I got to read through nominations and subsequent essays written by some really wonderful teachers doing amazing things in the classroom, not to mention the actual interview process before we ultimately selected a very worthy candidate.

One thing absolutely floored me from those interviews - and it was consistent across all of the candidates. Everyone feels undervalued by the greater community. I'm not necessarily speaking about those who are directly impacted by education like students and their parents, nor administrators or colleagues, but the larger chunk of the population who seems to have unfavorable views of educators and the profession in general.

I wonder how prevalent this really is or if it is our own self-consciousness projecting inward. Does the community really think we just work from 7:30-2, September through June? Do they really not understand the time it takes to develop plans, write assessments, grade, evaluate and reflect? The time after school, before, and in between helping students with their organization and comprehension? The emails, calls, and other meetings with colleagues, administrators, parents and others?

Is this an actual problem? As budgets are slashed, taxes and funding withheld, does the education profession have an image to shed or re-brand? Yes, there are those who on the first day of school start the 180 day countdown... but they are very few and very far between; quickly becoming relics of an earlier age. I look at my department, my building, and see an overwhelming number of educators who truly go in every day ready to connect and engage their students. I see thirty year veterans looking to learn new technologies, new ways to reach their classes and stay on top of the latest theories and strategies. Why, then, does the one with the paper on the desk and the busy-work on the board become the caricature of the profession?

Those of you not directly involved in the education community let me ask you this. How is the public perception on the other side?


  1. Unless you are a teacher you have no idea what it takes.

  2. Yes, there's a perception problem in the general public. Hi, I'm part of the general public.

    I suspect the primary reason is that most students (and parents) are only on campus during class hours. They don't see what their teachers do when they're not in the room. There's simply no way for them to know what goes on behind closed doors and after hours.

    After you're out of school and adrift in the "real world", most people have had one or a few really good teachers and a few really awful teachers. Those are the ones they talk about. Since bad teacher stories are much better than good teacher stories, that's what people remember. Get enough of those, and people start to think that the whole system is full of bad teachers, because nobody remembers the teachers who were forgettably adequate.

    Then when school districts do something stupid that makes the news (hiring criminals, tracking students online, stealing cupcakes from packed lunches, whatever the stupidity of the month is), they make the whole system look incompetent. Add in unions, pay disputes, tenure systems, standardized tests, miscellaneous politics, and low wages, and there's very little trust left that the teachers in your local school system are going to be more than minimally adequate (if that). Unless you're in a rich school district, of course.

    It sucks, and it's not at all fair to good educators, but it is what it is.

  3. As a member of the general public and someone who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that I am no longer primarily a student, I have to say that once people are no longer students, they stop remembering the positive influence teachers had on their lives. They remember the second grade teacher who made them cry or the ninth grade teacher who gave them an "unfair" grade and "ruined" their chance of getting into their dream school. Having been fortunate enough to attend a school with overwhelmingly amazing teachers and only a few bad apples, I believe that I will remember the positive influence of my teachers longer than most. However, that doesn't change the fact that the bad teachers and professors are still at the forefront of my mind. This makes the majority of society tend to think of the negative effects of teachers rather than the positive as they get older. We start to see high school teachers as people who couldn't make it through a PhD program and bitterly grade papers, taking out their frustrations on unsuspecting students. As a relatively young person, I haven't quite reached that point, but I am getting there.

  4. @anon #1: I would agree with that statement 100% but I also think that's part of the problem. How do we change that in a positive manner without sounding bitter?

    @anon #2: I wonder if the main stream media does more to perpetuate the bad as the 'norm' than doing good? Should the local media highlight educators that are doing more and those that push the envelope in the classroom?

  5. @anon #3: interesting, does the genial public really see HS teachers as failed doctoral candidates or under qualified 'education' majors?

  6. You know the sorts of thing I dream about when it comes to what tech can do, but one of the most important is that when our model of learning starts to change from "Teacher puts knowledge into student; student (ungratefully) moves on" to "Teacher and student develop a durable relationship in which student gains the power to learn" I think the role of teachers in society is going to change for the better, too. Far from tech minimizing our role, I think it will show how much benefit we bring. Of course, we have to be willing to make use of the affordances, and not be scared to have our students know us almost as well as we know them.

  7. @Roger: I agree with the learner vs empty vessel idea. There is a definitive split right now in the general classroom. I have some students who want to have that personal relationship and that, in turn, inspires them to want to learn more. Then there are those who just want to know the answers so that they can 'get it right on the test.'

    I think too many of their classes are still the empty vessel approach and that is the mindset that they are in. That split is far more stark in my (larger) Latin I classes as opposed to my (smaller) Latin II classes.

    Would smaller classes, as long as they are used in the rig way to build stronger relationships, change the outward projected image of teachers and education in general.

  8. I thought I could add a little perspective from my time teaching in Japan--a culture where teachers are revered almost unconditionally, in contrast with ours, which alternately overlooks and second-guesses our educators.

    Unfortunately it's hard to draw from Japan's example (and sometimes policy-makers fall into the trap of thinking that we can and should make our educational system more like theirs). If you look at a cultural psychology measure like the "power dimension index", you see that Americans (especially compared to somewhere like Japan) tend not to really elevate authority figures above themselves. So, you get parents who constantly question teachers and educational administrators, and students who always seem to view their teachers in relation to the students' own unique selves. It's not a class <--> teacher/leader dynamic, but an individual student <--> "what can the teacher do for me" sort of dynamic (that's oversimplifying, but for the sake of contrast).

    So what can be done? I'm sure that increasing the visibility of teachers' efforts would help, but you still have the question of second-guessing (just look at our politicians, after all). Maybe schools can take steps to strengthen the idea of stable classes instead of just individual students moving from teacher to teacher in the way that best serves him/her individually.

    Alternatively, maybe it would be more compatible with our culture to focus on encouraging permanence in a relationship between students and at least one or 2 teachers to develop slightly more of a mentor-like relationship. I'm sure there are huge issues with time commitments, but even encouraging multiple courses with one professor would help. You'd probably agree that at WHS, the most memorable teachers were those that we had at least twice - Mountzoures, Kelly, Lelli, Consagra, etc.

  9. @Ben: thanks for the contrast to Japan... I think you are knocking on the door with the comment about stable classes. One thing we've begun to pilot at NFA is the concept of 'unit' - about 100 students that are grouped together with the same teachers, etc. For the general education classes, it seems to be working very well, especially in terms of collaboration between faculty members.

    The drawback to this comes with trying to factor in other classes such as languages and other electives, of which we have a lot of options for students. It becomes difficult to schedule in those electives when so many other periods are 'locked in'. Also, the units tend to forget that decisions they make impact other teachers, especially when scheduling trips and other events. This happens a lot with the freshmen units more than others.

    Multiple courses with the same teacher, i think, is another step in the right direction. One of the benefits of Latin instruction is just that, I usually get to work with the same students year after year and build those relationships and trust.