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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Respect Public School Educators

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

I Don't Get No Respect" - Rodney Dangerfield

I like my dentist and my chiropractor.

Sometimes their treatments can be quite painful. I put up with it because I don’t question their insights, qualifications, or skills. I see diplomas and certificates of professionals standing on their walls. I know they must keep up with well-researched standards of practice to maintain their licenses to practice. I get good results from seeing them. They have my confidence.

I contrast the way I feel about these practitioners with the way in which I see so many public-school teachers, educational administrators, and academic institutions treated by many parents and politicians. Instead of respecting educators, the news is filled with stories of public educators being denigrated. As reported recently, thousands are leaving the field of public education:

"Why are America’s schools so short-staffed? Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay, and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues."

Oddly, public school educators are being replaced by men and women who have no training as teachers or in other positions in the educational system, e.g., school boards.

Public school educators in America sit in the crosshairs of social conditions and culture wars:

  • The consequences of poverty

  • Racial tensions

  • The prevalence of guns in American life, in particular

  • The impact of fundamentalist religion on schools

  • Broken and unhappy families

  • The status of higher education for teachers and educators

  • The existential context of climate change

Public school personnel are sitting ducks.

Well-to-do elites understand some of the elements required by and unfolding in the Anthropocene. They purchase a lot of learning-related equipment and often send their kids to private schools, and/or they live in a zip code where public education is a very high priority as demonstrated by college entrance results.

But in the ordinary world of the 66% of American families earning $100K/year[1] or less, kids go to public schools, and their educators are bombarded with all the deficiencies of American democracy in peril.

It turns out that a heck of a lot of personnel engaged in the public education system working with these millions of kids and young adults have qualifications like those of my dentist and chiropractors and their staffers, those people whose qualifications I do not question.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville provides an illustration of what I mean. The University, founded in 1794, is a secular, public university with about 30,000 students. It is a solid state school. It is not ranked among the top 50 graduate school programs in education in the United States. ­­­­­­­I thought it’d be useful to look at what kind of training one must receive to qualify for teaching or educational administration credentials at this non-elite institution.

At the undergraduate level, UT Knoxville offers credentials in 8 courses of study. There are 36 graduate-level education degree or certificate granting programs. The master's program in Literacy, for example, works with educators and administrators to enhance their understanding of how reading and writing develop, and on ways to support learners from the initial stages of reading, spelling, writing, and thinking acquisition to later stages of critical thinking through technology, writing, while promoting self-regulation, motivation, and a growth mindset.

It requires a minimum of 33 credits to receive the degree. At least four courses in Literacy are required, covering topics such as Assessment and Instruction of Emergent Learners, PreK-2, Literacy, and Literature in Middle School, and Advanced Studies and Theoretical Models of Reading.

In addition to earning a relevant degree, most states and schools require teaching professionals to earn a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs) or continuing education credits (CECs) every five years to renew their teaching licenses. Nebraska, for example, requires its teachers to complete at least 18 hours of continuing education every two-year period.

In other words, if you get a 3.0 or better at the Bailey School of Education at UT Knoxville, you’re going to work your butt off and, once you do, you’ll know stuff. You’ll be a rigorously trained educator. If you want to stay in that profession, you’ll have to continue your education indefinitely. My point: a certificate to practice as a teacher isn’t the same as meeting the training demands faced by dentists or chiropractors, but it is deserving of respect.

Increasingly, that respect is not forthcoming.

Instead, what is swelling are politicians, angry parents with no background in education, and various kinds of agitators screaming at teachers and school administrators and threatening them with violence over:

  • Curricular programs like sex education, social-emotional learning, the Common Core, anything having to do with racial injustice and oppression, science-based public health interventions, or not being nice enough to their “special” children

  • Bans on prayer in school or on school grounds

  • Any recognition that there are alternatives to heterosexuality

People who’ve never cracked a serious book about teaching, why the goals of education (e.g., the ability to read widely and write well) exist, the racial, ethnic, and religious differences among students, the disciplinary dynamics of a classroom, the management of students in the same classroom who possess different kinds of aptitudes, the evolution of human development across a diverse population, how curricular choices prepare students for life in a democracy, the complications of institutional bureaucracy, etc. are absolutely sure they are right about everything! Right enough to threaten and beat people who don’t agree with them.

  • They see “left-wing plots and conspiracies” in math.

  • They ban and burn award-winning books.

  • They force teachers of the year into retirement because they are gay.

  • They denigrate the arts, humanities, history, civics, and social studies.

  • They attack public schools as an entity that have no right to exist, “government schools” intent on the indoctrination and grooming of children without conservative parents having any influence.

  • They believe that our government “of the people, for the people, and by the people” is a lie, and that the United States government is pushing a “woke” agenda through the schools.

  • They believe Alex Jones, but they’ve never heard of Robert Hutchins.

Here’s what a veteran history teacher has to say about the hostility she faces:

The headlines in North Carolina, the state where I live and teach U.S. history, civics, and economics, read: “North Carolina House approves bill to limit teaching of race.” ….This cannot and will not continue.
And it’s not just North Carolina. Lawmakers in states around the country are attempting to block the teaching of critical race theory, which looks at how racism continues to affect individuals and society. (One such bill was signed into law in Tennessee very recently.)
I am a Black woman and teaching my history — telling the truth about it — should not be controversial. Teaching historical facts in context should not merit a parent email that turns into a parent conference with the administration. An award-winning, vetted book should not be why calls are made to the district central office. Teachers are professionals, and while every lesson is not perfect, each teaching moment has the potential to challenge students, help them grow, and inspire their love of learning."

Valencia Ann Abbott. Courtesy photo: Chalkbeat, May 2021

I am not contending that there aren’t lousy teachers, non-performing schools, dysfunctional school systems, legitimate controversies surrounding educational programs, or misbehavior by educators at all levels. The police – another large and diverse community – have demonstrated that corruption penetrates many of the professions we depend upon repeatedly.

I am saying that educators deserve at least the level of support and trust shown to the police and the military. I am saying – like the thousands of health care heroes that sacrificed themselves at the height of the COVID crisis – that most educators care deeply about their work and their responsibilities. I am saying that the percentage of educators who possess at least the same level of expertise in their profession is equal to what the cops and members of the military do in theirs.

The most vociferous public education critics should spend more time inquiring into the thinking and the choices of professional educators and less time yelling at them.

This Age of Humanity we have entered, this Anthropocene, has spun itself into far past equilibrium territory. In The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green writes of the love that he has come to feel for the stability of Indianapolis. I’ve been to Indianapolis a number of times, and I found it as boring as it is stable. But I know what Green means. It’s damned difficult to feel anything but off-kilter if you really feel the turbulence of the world around us and maybe the world within us as well.

Those who can teach us to think and to act with intelligence and character are so critically important to the success of the Anthropocene. They are the allies of families that sense the nature of this inflection point, not their opposition.

[1] Statistica

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