On Teacher Appreciation Day

I love my job.

 Every day, I get to come to work and help students fall in love with the thing I love most outside of family: history. I get to introduce teenagers to people who might become lifelong heroes, or villains. I get to talk about morality, ambition, greed, sacrifice, and memory. I have incredible colleagues who devote their time, passion, and expertise to the same charge. When I’m really lucky, I get to spend two hours searching for materials for a fifteen minute lesson. Much as I might complain about the grading process, I get to work to help students avoid the writing pitfalls I had to suffer through, and celebrate the small victories.

I love my job.

But I’ve got to say – today, on Teacher Appreciation Day – that it’s hard sometimes to feel like my society loves my job.

Public education is built on a great and fundamental truth: every single child deserves an education just as good as the one his or her neighbor gets. It has not been an easy road establishing that principle nationwide: it has faced regional struggles, religious struggles, racial struggles. In some very real ways, we’ve never had an egalitarian, universal system; in the nineteenth century public education was still largely a northern phenomenon. Even when it enmeshed itself in southern life in the early 1900s it faced rampant segregation and religious intolerance that challenged academic freedom. Legal school segregation crumbled after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but informal segregation – based on unequal housing and living – remained, and battles over it shifted north. Funding policy deepened rather than smoothed regional inequality; the dependence on local funding meant that poor areas had poorly funded schools while wealthy districts had palaces. We’ve slowly developed a multi-tiered system, as parents – fearing nebulous dangers – remove their children to private and parochial education, and misleading fear over the state of public schools themselves have energized a dangerous charter system that threatens to gut public funding based on disingenuous data. Unionized teaching is now seen less as a guarantor of fairness and competence and more as a leech on the public good. But the idea of public education? The idea shakes windows and rattles doors.

That is its strength and its undoing. The promise of real public education means a threat to established hierarchy. Unequal education, where we hold swaths of students down by a dozen barely visible shackles, allows our society to maintain certain myths about who can and cannot succeed. To equalize education is to grapple with inequality in property, in taxation, in transportation.It is to allow the privileged to compete on the same level as the dispossessed. It is to expose all children to great and fundamental debates about our society and how we organize it; to challenge them and inspire them to seek change. It is noble, but it is also hard. It is threatening.

Because the truth is, we’re often much more willing to paper over our problems than address them. The great central myth of the United States is that both failure and success are entirely earned: that those who succeed deserved to through grit and hard work, while those who failed were themselves failures. That is a myth that is hard to reconcile with structural inequality, but it is ingrained in our culture. And so, when we have struggling schools, we’re less likely to examine the root causes of endemic poverty, isolation and lack of opportunity, and more likely to see personal fault. We see failure as cultural, or as the result of weakness. Too much welfare, too much coddling, too much vacation time. Instead of empowering our schools to do what egalitarian schools would do best, we handcuff them.

I’ve been a teacher for eight years, and I’ve been professionally involved with education one way or another for a decade longer. I’ve seen educators in the worst and best districts doing amazing things with virtually no support. I have trouble imagining that if we supported these people – financially, but also in terms of their time, education, facilities and lives – that they couldn’t make at least a sizable dent in the challenges education faces. But instead, we often handcuff them. We blame them alongside their students and their students’ parents for poor performance, because its easier to blame vulnerable groups than structural flaws. If the people fail, it doesn’t call the system into question. So we talk of accountability, and create draconian testing. We talk of innovation, and create charter schools that operate without oversight. We talk of opportunity, and prioritize profit. There are those in education reform today who act as though the only thing separating our students from becoming the next Steve Jobs (and oh, it’s always Steve Jobs) are a bunch of bitter public servants who hate progress. So we take things away from teachers, and then say ‘higher!’

Teacher Appreciation Day is a lovely sentiment. But from this bunker, it’s awfully hard to see it as more than a gesture. If we really appreciated teachers, we’d view them with more respect and less suspicion. We’d ask them what they need, and provide it. We’d fund our schools centrally and equally. We’d put teachers alongside students at the center of the educational sphere, and not push them to the margins while talking about reimagining paradigms. We appreciate teachers just the same way as we castigate them: by glossing over the true issues, hoping they won’t yell too loudly. We give teachers a day and some cute ads, and drop mindless evaluation systems and mandatory fingerprinting and less time and resources and respect on them. And when the inevitable failure comes? Well, we all know who we can blame.

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