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Op-Ed: In Defense of the Public School Teacher

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I recently heard an interesting radio interview with Professor James Stigler, a developmental psychologist from UCLA. He told a story about sitting in on an elementary math class in Japan. The group was learning how to draw three-dimensional figures, and the students were working independently.

The teacher looked around for the child with the wonkiest cube, and asked him to draw it on the board—exactly the opposite of what a teacher in the U.S. would do! She asked the class if his cube looked right, and they shook their heads, no-o-o. The class went on and the boy continued trying unsuccessfully. Finally, near the end of the session the teacher asked again. Bright faces nodded, ye-e-es. The boy, Stigler recalls, was filled with pride and joy.

The memory gnawed at Stigler, inspiring more research into Eastern versus Western attitudes toward struggle. He recorded conversations between parents and children. In these, he heard American parents telling their children they were successful because they were smart and Asian parents telling their children they were successful because they had worked hard. 

He determined that our culture views struggle negatively, as a sign that a person lacks intelligence, while the Eastern culture views struggle positively, as a necessary precondition of intelligence—the way you get there. The story carefully emphasized that neither approach was better, but the implication remained that the Eastern view—that struggle is a valuable experience—led to greater academic success.

Though I am an educator, that radio interview got me thinking beyond classroom learning. I came to realize that struggle in any area of life is valuable. And thank goodness for that, because this is a time of tremendous struggle, especially around schools and schooling. 

Education is a hotly contested territory, and there is no neutral option. For teachers, the struggle for the very space of our vocation is already on. Public education in this country is under attack, as we are well aware. From the disaster of No Child Left Behind to the standardization of everything, schools have become nearly unrecognizable from the time when I was a teacher in a first-grade classroom. 

Most recently, the offensive has been targeted at teachers personally. I’m already seeing the despair in my graduate students as the public discourse casts teachers as enemy number one—while high-stakes testing makes it harder to actually teach. The efforts to undermine teachers’ unions, tenure, and programs like Teach for America, which ask just a few years’ commitment to the classroom—all point in one direction. 

If the reform movement is successful, teaching will no longer be a career, but a job—and a low-paid, temporary one at that. Since for most teachers, neither of these is an adequate descriptor for what is truly a vocation, the struggle in which we are now engaged is for our very survival as professionals.

The next time you hear anyone talking about how selfish teachers are for desiring respect, autonomy, reasonable class sizes—outrageous demands, I know—think about whether that makes any sense.

Someone told me a funny story once about a prospective teacher who went in for an interview and found himself in front of a stern-faced committee. His first question from the principal was: “Why do you want to become a teacher?” The young man responded, “For the money, the fame and the power!” Well, the whole committee started laughing, the tension was broken, and he got the job. Choosing to be a teacher is about the most selfless career move possible. That teachers are being vilified as selfish is utter insanity. 

A teacher who is not allowed to think for herself cannot possibly teach a student to think for himself.

Also, remember that what affects teachers affects students. Teachers’ working conditions are children’s learning conditions, and a teacher who is not allowed to think for herself cannot possibly teach a student to think for himself. If teaching is turned into a one- or two-year gig, whether through ‘save the poor children’ service programs or charter schools whose low wages and long hours make it impossible to stay for long, it is our students who will suffer. 

Thankfully, teachers are not taking this lying down. My home city of Chicago was the site of a historic teachers’ strike this fall, with reverberations in labor actions and other forms of resistance all over the country. Teachers are refusing to be part of practices that are destructive. Some are living their principles in the way that teachers always have, by closing their classroom doors and doing right by their students. But others are taking a louder and more public approach, like the teachers of Seattle’s Garfield High School, whose boycott of the MAP test has inspired colleagues across the nation.

They are not alone. Here in Chicago, parent group More Than a Score continues to garner media attention for their campaign and petition to limit high-stakes testing in Chicago. High school students in Rhode Island are marching on the capital to protest a test-score requirement for graduation. And some state legislatures are beginning to listen. In Texas, for example, House lawmakers cut all funding for testing—one good way to limit the number of exams students face. 

The Chicago teachers strike has inspired renewed solidarity among teachers and workers, and the Seattle MAP boycott has inspired a broad coalition and movement against high-stakes testing. I can’t wait to see what comes out of the next place of teacher resistance. Many of us still remember the lessons we learned in school about working hard and trusting our teachers. When enough of us come together, policy makers will have no choice but to listen.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Why So Many People Say ‘Enough is Enough’ to High-Stakes Testing

• Is Standardized Testing for Preschoolers a Good Idea?

• What’s Got Seattle Teachers Fed Up and Firing Back?


Isabel Nuñez is an associate professor in the Center for Policy Studies and Social Justice at Concordia University Chicago. She was a classroom teacher in the U.S. and U.K., and a newspaper journalist in Japan. She is a member of CReATE (Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education), a group of volunteer faculty engaged in inquiry and dialogue around policy for our city’s schools. TakePart.com

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