Are Teachers Expendable?

6.12.13




Yes. Of course. Hells, yeah.

It’s not that we don’t think education and teachers aren’t important, it’s just we don’t pay or respect them very much. As a profession, teaching is often overlooked, after doctor or lawyer, and when we think of the word profession - we think “white collar,” but teachers are really blue collar workers, with university professors closer to the “white” spectrum.

I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Perhaps because teaching was one of the earliest professions, if not the earliest, that was considered acceptable for a woman to do.

"God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems...very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price." -- Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849

It’s also considered a profession that anyone can do. The popular expression a “trained monkey could do it” comes to mind, although monkeys are valued for their entertainment, which is something society pays a lot for. And if there is anything I’ve learned so far, it is changing people’s preconceived notions or original ideas, can a very difficult thing to do indeed.

When I was working on my Master’s Degree in Elementary Education at Chaminade University in Hawaii, I remember there was a teachers strike. In 2003/2004, when the strike occurred, Hawaii teachers were the lowest paid in the country. Now, you might not be aware of this, but Hawaii is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, AND teachers there have to work with a growing migrant population (mainly Pacific Islanders).

Throw in government standards and testing, and that Hawaii actually consists of eight major islands with their own flavor and challenges, and you got yourself a lot of work for very little livable compensation. But the reason I bring up Hawaii is, during the strike there was this infamous bus driver who was televised as saying something like, teachers are not as important as bus drivers.

And here we have a mentality that teachers have to deal with. Now you might argue, “Oh, but that’s a bus driver’s opinion,” but honestly, it’s a thought that many folks think, but don’t usually voice out loud - a teacher’s job is an easy one.

Recently, I started watching the super popular TV series, Breaking Bad. I watched the first episode with conviction as Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, tries to make ends meet by working at a car wash after school. A classic moment occurred when he was caught washing the sports car of one of his students.

And if that’s too fictional to be true, there’s a popular Facebook page called Surviving a Teachers Salary. Sure, there are plenty of feel-good/feel-right movies depicting teachers making a difference from "Kindergarten Cop" to Dead Poets Society, and I’m not saying there aren’t mighty fine teachers out there doing just that, but part of the problem is - we’re martyrs.

We work, often okay conditions, almost always for a deplorable salary. We spend our free time marking and grading, planning special events, attending special events, and cleaning up after special events. We spend our money on materials and resources for the classroom, often thinking of our students when out shopping. Our students are never far from our minds. We’re constantly switched ON: lesson planning, talking shop, jumping through bureaucratic loops and swimming in the gossipy halls of education.

Why? For the students, of course.



This is why, when I was fired as a Waldorf grade school teacher, the slap, “You’re not good enough” stung so paradoxically sweet. I worked unbelievably hard to win the approval of the administration and parents. I toiled and toiled over lesson planning and prep work. I really truly wanted to be a GOOD teacher, and I loved my students.

But that so-called slap across the face was a good one. I haven’t made those mistakes ever since. I rarely work at home, and I’ve stopped spending so much of my time and energy working “for free.” I’m acutely aware of the time I devote to lesson planning without compromising my work.

But many teachers, the ones who leave the profession due to burnout (1 in 4) never learn to survive, and frankly, perhaps this is best as the ever faithful churn of new teachers keeps buttering the wheels of education.

We teachers are our own worst enemies. Did you know that the 2003/2004 teachers strike in Hawaii ended because the teachers “gave up”? I remember this because I was so frustrated when I heard the news. As a graduate student, I thought, what’s the point of striking if you are going to cave in and stop? There was most likely too much pressure and probably loads and heaps of guilt too. We’re martyrs. We spend our own money on the students, we sacrifice our time and energy, we do it thanklessly, and we keep our heads down and keep on doing it.

The world has gone upside down, but instead of speaking up, we are keeping quiet. And if we do speak up, we are seen as trouble-makers and often standing alone while our colleagues quietly wait for judgement to fall. Remember success is a group effort! We have to support the teachers who are brave enough to fight for wrong-doings, and better conditions for the students, schools and teachers. We have to stop being so fearful of losing our jobs, because like it or not, teachers are seen as replaceable and - expendable.

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