MAXWELL: Respect for teachers has declined, but the job has gotten harder

8/4/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Every American who attended public school probably had one or more of them. I had several. I am talking about a teacher who had a great, positive impact on our lives.

Among others, my English teacher, my civics/social studies teacher and my football coach influenced me and helped guide me to college.

I have never lost respect for my teachers, their profession and the good today’s public school teachers continue to do. But as I write these words in 2002, I see evidence everywhere that my admiration for those in the “noblest profession” goes against the grain among many groups.

In a recent column, I argued that teachers, especially those in Florida, which has one of the nation’s fastest-growing school populations, deserve higher salaries. The avalanche of angry _ no, hostile _ mail arguing that teachers deserved their low salaries because they are part-time workers and because they have failed their communities surprised several of my colleagues.

I am not surprised, but I am disappointed with this apparent widespread negative attitude toward our public school teachers.

What happened between my childhood and 2002?

Why has the teacher gone from being a hero to many to being a pariah to many? If my personal mail and letters to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times are indicators, then I do not exaggerate the changed attitude toward teachers.

Again, what happened?

One of the biggest influences is this: Powerful politicians, including several governors, with anti-public school agendas have helped in turning public opinion against teachers. Just as politicians portrayed government as the people’s enemy during the 1980s and 1990s, they now portray public schools and teachers as an enemy.

Even Education Secretary Rod Paige, who should know better, has painted teachers in a negative light. Here in Florida, our governor and lieutenant governor _ a former teacher and former state education commissioner _ are lukewarm if not hostile toward the interests of teachers.

No one should be surprised that the majority of Florida teachers and their organizations do not support the governor in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

The nation’s voucher effort, along with much of the charter school movement, is nothing less than a frontal assault on public schools and teachers.

Are our public schools and our teachers as bad as the right wing portrays them? I do not think so. As a parent and a grandparent whose children attend public school, and as one who himself attended public school in Florida, I suspect that while everything else in society has changed, we expect our schools and teachers to perform the same miracles of old.

That is an unfortunate and misguided expectation.

Our concept of discipline in the schools, for example, changed dramatically since my day. Sure, you have heard the old tales of parents and teachers and principals conspiring to control student behavior in the classroom so that real learning could occur.

This is not an “old tale.” In the past, teachers were able to do more teaching and more effective teaching because they faced fewer disruptive discipline problems in their classrooms. Parents tended to be on the teacher’s side more often than not. In my day, I was told to “sit down and shut up” only once. That was all I needed.

Good research shows that effective learning still occurs best when the environment is conducive to effective learning, when teachers can control student behavior.

What happened to parental support, when Mom and Dad were the teacher’s ally, when a telephone call or a home visit from a teacher meant trouble for the kid? Today, at least among many of the teachers I know, a meeting or telephone call to many parents becomes an ugly confrontation, sometimes an act of war.

I know about teaching personally. I was a teacher. And both of my sisters are long-time Florida public school teachers, and they have seen the changes I speak of. They stay in the profession because, like other teachers I know, they love what they do, and they are dedicated to their charges. Even so, they often believe that they are performing a thankless task in a society that has turned against them and their profession.

In addition to low salaries, one of the best indicators of our low regard for teachers is our refusal to demand adequate supplies for teachers in their classrooms. Here is an excerpt from a teacher’s letter published in the Times: “Teaching is the only profession in which one is expected to purchase one’s own materials. The budgets allotted for supplies for the classroom are minuscule, and as a result teachers supplement them from their own pockets. Can anyone imagine getting a job in an office and being told you must supply your own paper, pens, ink cartridges and paper clips?”

So, what keeps the average public school teacher going? Again, an except from a teacher’s published comment: “Teaching requires a commitment few are willing to make. Long hours, low pay and negative publicity impede our ability to do our jobs. It’s time for the public to support us and stop looking on education as the scapegoat for the ills of our society.”

Frankly, I am amazed _ but thankful _ that so many people still choose teaching as a profession.