Friday, July 3, 2009

Teacher Stereotypes

My brother hates teachers. Not me, just teachers. He says we talk down to everyone else, don't do our jobs, and are responsible for many problems in the world.

But he's the only person in the world who thinks like that, right? Or do I need to prove that a negative teacher stereotype exists? If you need proof, google "bad teacher."

In the Teacher Magazine article, "Upending the Negative Teacher Stereotype," John Norton discusses responses to a June 6, 2009 Newsweek article by Jonathan Alter. (In order to confuse you further, Alter decided to incite the wrath of teachers everywhere by opening with a controversial quote from Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America.)

While good blog etiquette suggests that I should summarize and write about each response individually, that's simply not going to happen. The number of posts related to this story make such a task impossible. Unless, of course, you'd like to see my head explode magnificently.

Therefore, I'm going to invite you to read the article and comments, and then return to this page to see if I have anything worthwhile to offer. I know, that's a risky proposal; you're all too likely to follow the links, get lost in the discussion, and forget to come back here and comment. I suggest opening the links in a new tab or window :)

Norton's article, along with its pleasantly insightful comments, offers endless topics for discussion, but two major obstacles jump out that permit negative stereotypes to endure:

  • People in general seem to differentiate between "MY school / MY teacher" and "teachers and schools in the USA."

  • Teachers, politicians, and the general American public all seem to maintain differing views regarding teacher effectiveness.

Norton mentions the common "American-schools-are-bad-but-my-kid's-school-is-OK" stereotype. We see examples of this view everywhere. Jay Leno harangues teachers night after night, and it's become an old not-so-funny gag that every joke that starts with a teacher will end with statutory rape, but he praised his own teachers when he returned to Andover for a hometown event. On The West Wing, the smartest TV show in way too long, Jimmy Smits' character makes education a huge part of his election campaign. In one episode, Santos (the character) is explaining his education plan to potential fundraisers, and they show irritation when he gives that old line about getting rid of bad teachers. "My sister is a teacher." His response? "And I'm sure she's a great teacher, but..." This idea is pervasive, even ubiquitous, but it's still just...silly.

When we separate our own schools and teachers from the general population, we allow ourselves to retain our simplistic views on the state of education. If my teacher is the only one who works hard, then the rest of the teachers are just "out there." If none of the teachers "out there" are worthwhile, then we can justify the view that American Education just needs to be turned on its head. Then we leave ourselves with naive solutions that don't work.

Instead, we need to examine what we have. A superb educational consultant in Northern California recently commented on the "pockets of excellence" in an underperforming district. We could extend that appellation across the country. What's working in American schools? WHO is working? What are they doing? What best practices could be adapted to other learning communities?

Which brings us to the second point: How do we define success? Politicians (and yes, I'm using the term loosely) have spewed nonsense about accountability, trying to run the public education system like a business. However, one significant difference separates public education from businesses, charter schools, and private schools: public schools admit all students. Even small schools of choice admit students randomly, not based on grades or behavior. We can't "counsel out" students, as KIPP is rumored to do, or expel kids for any but the most severe infractions. (For more about our admission policy, read this post). The problem comes when teachers try to explain why we sound so excited about achievements that sound terrible to those outside the profession. When we list the reasons why a 40% proficiency rate or 85% homework turn-in rates are wonderful, we sound like whiners. We sound like we're just making excuses, and the world mocks us for it. While you're thinking about success, and commenting on your ideas, open this article in a new window.

Teachers need to work tirelessly on several fronts to assuage the negative teacher stereotypes. We need to be willing to adopt the best practices from other teachers, schools, and states; or, as Harry Wong says, "Steal, steal, steal!" We need to define success in terms that people in other professions can appreciate.

Oh, yeah, and we all need to work freaking hard to follow Abraham Lincoln's advice: "Whatever you are, be a good one."


  1. The Newsweek article pissed me off. I abhor people who sit in a cushy office and use their keyboards to sling poisoned barbs at those of us who are WORKING OUR ARSES OFF.

    I WISH improving our education system was as simple as his solution: replace the crappy teachers with ones who can teach. OH MY GOD!! WHY DIDN'T WE THINK OF THAT?!?!?! That will solve everything!

    Let's say we did that. By some miracle of miracles, we were actually able to discern what TRULY makes someone a good teacher...forget the fact that we have yet to agree as a nation what a "good" teacher is: someone whose kids can bubble all the right bubbles on some asinine "assessment" OR someone who actually freakin' connects with the kids and gets them to make some modicum progress in the academic arena....forget that fact....

    Let's say we replace all the "bad" teachers with "good" ones. We're supposed to believe that this will ensure that American children --- ALL American children --- will magically receive the magnificently perfect education that they need so they can hold their own against any child from any other nation in the world? And I guess all of our social problems like poverty and crime and such will magicaly disappear since we have such an educated populace?

    That's some effin' horse puckey!!

    As much as I consider myself to be a ROCKSTAR TEACHER, the fact of the matter is that I am only 1/28th of the population in my classroom. And although I do a darn fine job of managing the dynamics of those 27 teenagers, those 27 teenagers are their own people who have the free will to choose their own level of performance at any given moment in our class period.

    It wouldn't matter if the teacher was engineered by NASA to be Mr. Chips, Joe Clark, Louanne Johnson, Anne Sullivan, Erin Gruwell, and Mr. Holland...because, even though you changed out the "bad" teacher that was standing in the front of the room, you've still got the same 27 children with their same 27 attitudes, personalities, learning styles, and their home environment that left them with a whole bunch of not-conducive-to-learning baggage, sitting in those same 27 desks in that same underfunded classroom in that same plagued-by-all-of-society's-ills schoolhouse.

    But Mr. Keyboard Barb-Slinger didn't make any mention of that. Apparently, he can't be bothered with reality.

    -Ms. H

  2. Interesting comment about classroom population!

    I wonder how many people really understand that education is remarkably unlike any other profession?

    Thanks for reading!