February 7, 2009

Teachers Aren't Embattled Saints

Justin Katz

Two comments on Anchor Rising from apparent teachers within the past twelve hours raise some common points that are worth addressing. The first, appended to a September post by Monique, is a recitation of some typical union talking points — which, as I've been saying, are most directly targeted at the union members themselves, to keep them believing that they need a union and deserve ever more remuneration:

As usual, let's continue to demonize ALL teachers, belittle the work that they do, forget the professional degrees that they paid for and earned, and generally disrespect anyone who devotes their life to educating our children despite the lack of support from the public, government and so many parents. And EVERYONE should have health care benefits. Pushing to remove decent health care from the last few people still adequately covered will finally make it possible for the health care industry to drive in that final nail. Use your zealous energy to get something for everyone instead of blaming people who are trying to hang on to something you haven't got.

The comment opens with a display of the thin-skinned sense of victimization, whereby complaints about performance and union tactics are statements of disrespect for teachers qua teachers. They're all alone, these educators, with everyone — "the public, government and so many parents" — gunning for them and their meager, cobbled-together remuneration packages. Who's to protect them from a society that would manacle them to their desks and pay them in apples? Why, the union, of course — organizers who assure the members that, as much as they might find work-to-rule and strikes disagreeable, they are mild actions compared to what school committees would do to our harried professionals without collective strongarming, and as much as they might be embarrassed of and uncomfortable with the union performances at public meetings, well, that's just how these things are done.

Two considerations are offered to buttress this sense, the first being the dedication evidenced by the pursuit of professional degrees. Factoring in the broad range of careers that begin with bachelors and layer in masters over the years, it takes a bit of myopia to present education degrees as some sort of rigorous crucible. Would-be teachers are not sequestered in an isolated training camp in their preteen years and run through drills in preparation for their work. They borrow, work for, or receive money to invest in an education suitable to their professional choice and then study sufficiently to achieve degrees. That is increasingly the expected path for all young Americans, many of whom pursue continued education (whether matriculating or autodidactic) as a matter of intellectual curiosity disconnected from direct increases in remuneration that's worked into many teacher contracts.

The second consideration put forth is the notion that, in guarding their benefits, union members stand as a last bastion for the way in which employment packages ought to work. In striving against those benefits, taxpayers are bringing victory to those faceless corporations in the evil health care industry. Nevermind that the storyline is functional nonsense: Public-sector healthcare benefits are filtered through those very same corporations, none of which are apt to complain about the taxpayer-guaranteed revenue stream. Nevermind, as well, that the motivation for taxpayer opposition is not an idle jealousy, but an actual aversion to financing benefits better than their own as they struggle to move forward in life: Even if it were true that ending enviable benefits somehow served the ends of healthcare kingpins, their preservation is an unjust burden to place on suffering private-sector families.

Another commenter, this time to a recent post of mine, takes that extra logical step to conclude that perhaps there's a reason that teachers have it so good compared with their neighbors:

Wow ... its amazing that people aren't just lining up for teaching jobs ... you losers wouldn't last a week in a real classroom ...

I'd suggest that, to the extent that the assertion of an inadequate workforce is true, it has more to do with the steps, processes, and regulations built up as obstacles around the classroom than with the incompetence of the public at large. Myself, I lasted a year as a grade-school computer teacher and several months teaching seventh grade with less than a month of preparation. Done well, teaching isn't an easy job, and it comes with a fair bit of responsibility, but it ain't landing an airplane on the Hudson. One could just as accurately state that any given group "wouldn't last a week" as the lead carpenter on a construction crew, as legal council to a wrongly indicted citizen, or as the kitchen manager in a midrange restaurant.

We choose our professions based on our interests, our aptitudes, and the likely rewards. It doesn't belittle the profession of teaching to suggest that, while the calling is certainly high, it's hardly a qualification for sainthood of itself.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I do find the comments of some of my fellow teachers to be embarrassingly over-the-top. It is true that teaching is a very difficult job, if it is done well. Unfortunately unions and administrators have ensured that even those who don't do it well, or who put forth little effort, remain. These are usually the ones screaming and calling those with whom they disagree "losers".

There are some days Justin when working to meet the needs of kids and their families feels like landing a plane in the Hudson. But I still like and appreciate my job, even on those days, because I chose my profession based the criteria you outlined.

Posted by: mikeinRI at February 7, 2009 2:12 PM

Many (though certainly not all) of the teachers want to have it both ways.

We constantly hear the refrain of how "they" (as individuals) work.

But their individual efforts are irrelevant (which is not to say that there aren't some outstanding and dedicated teachers out there). Because they are in a union, they are mere units in a collective, and those that make outstanding efforts merely slightly raise the average performance of the collective's average, and thus subsidize the "performance" of their slacker and/or less competent peers.

Because of the union model the public can only judge "teachers" as a group, and their performance based upon the group average. As we know, the group performance of U.S. public schools significantly lags that of our international competitors, and in turn Rhode Island's performance is below average for the U.S.

Relatedly, having a "degree" or "advanced degree" in and of itself signifies nothing. Competence and diligence are exercised in the real world, not on a piece of paper hanging on a wall. Education programs in particular are noted for their lack of rigor - and just as an "art history" degree does not carry the weight of an engineering or medical degree, an education masters is no big thing. This isn't said to be insulting - it's recognition of fact, which any reasonably thorough Google search will attest. Indeed some years ago there were Congressional hearings on the poor quality of education colleges.

The teachers unions' resistance to alternate certification proves this - if their existing membership would not be made to "look bad" by the performance of non-education college trained people the unions would have no reason for opposition.

Indeed, if their existing members' value would be enhanced by the relatively poor performance of those coming in the door through alternate certification, then the unions would embrace it to be able to say "I told you so" and negotiate higher compensation for the education college graduates.

Posted by: Tom W at February 8, 2009 11:09 AM
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