“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” All of us have heard the idiom. A few of you have said it. Some of you may even believe these words. I doubt when George Bernard Shaw wrote the phrase in Man and Superman, he expected his personal prejudices to belittle generations of teachers. These eight words have made it easier for people to hate those who educate. Well, maybe not hate—but the shifting attitude directed toward American teachers saddens and frightens me.
When I entered teaching thirty years ago, I intended to stay in education for only four or five years until I attended and completed graduate school. Something unexpected happened. I loved teaching. I enjoyed opening the minds of my students as we read 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye. The years I taught Psychology, we reveled in Freud and Jung, paid homage to Skinner, and recognized the importance of Maslow. It didn’t matter if I taught seventh graders to listen to their inner voices when they wrote, or if I helped struggling seniors finally figure out rhyme schemes. I loved the vigorous demands on my creativity and intellect that teaching imposed each and every day.
During any typical day, American teachers must relate to their students (some years I had 150 students per semester) and to the parents of these students. They must juggle Federal laws, State mandates, and District policies along with principals and peers. Some days, I came into contact with overt two-hundred people. And all of them wanted or needed something from me. They needed my intelligence, my attention, my guidance, my firmness, my determination, and my heart and soul. So you see, teachers are those who can.
The recent trend to blame teachers for society’s shortcomings troubles me. Disrespectful words and attitudes within our media spill into our school hallways. Parents and students feel entitled to special treatment out of a sense of superiority over the instructors. I know not all teachers are excellent. However, I worked over the years more with exceptional instructors than with unskilled teachers. Burn out is a real problem within the profession. I’ll admit that my last two years, I wore a whistle around my neck and blew it in the classroom because groups of students behaved no better than dogs. Actually, they didn’t behave as well as most trained pets—they didn’t know how to sit in a chair, how to stay, how to be quiet, or how to show respect (for anyone). These behaviors didn’t suddenly start when these twelve-year-old students crossed the threshold into my classroom. These behaviors began long before I ever entered these children’s lives.
My job, though, went beyond teaching my students the nuances of literature and the delights of writing. I had to teach them (and many times their parents) consequences for their actions. I maintained high standards for my students, but I provided the support they needed to reach those objectives. Many times, it meant I didn’t give second chances. I sat in parent-teacher conferences and told mothers, “No. I will not take the assignment late. We spent five class days working on this assignment. I sat down with your son each of those days to help him do the work. He made the choice to refuse my help. He must learn that doing nothing is not a choice he can make in my class.” I didn’t have a high failure rate. The thing about difficult students is that once they realize resistance is futile, they begin to do the work. These same students will play the system for as long as possible if they sense weakness.
I’ve pondered over the reasons for the slander of my profession and the anger directed towards educators. I’ve decided that it must be easier to blame that horrible seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Chapman, for a daughter’s slapping her mother’s face. It must be easier point a finger at her and yell and accuse when your son fails six out of seven classes (even P.E.). It must be easier to befriend your child as you walk away from the school in an Us versus Them camaraderie. It must be easier to lay culpability upon an entire profession than to accept responsibility within the family. And our politicians feed this abusive attitude and encourage the bashing because they need an enemy that’s real and solid—not poverty, not broken homes, not drug or alcohol abuse, not violence.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman