March 2 2011 10:30 AM

The absurdity of teacher as scapegoat

“Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true: Teachers make a goddamn difference! What about you?”
—From “What Teachers Make, or Objection Overruled, or If Things Don’t Work Out, You Can Always Go to Law School” by poet Taylor Mali

As I write this, the battle between the mouth-breathing governor of Wisconsin and American workers is raging. It’s my hope that, as you read this, the 14 Democratic senators necessary for a vote on Scott Walker’s union-busting bill will still be in their undisclosed bunkers, fondling their newly grown balls. It sure has been nice to see the Dems finally stand for something, even if it is too little too late.

Regardless of how this “brouhaha”—as Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal dismissively called this pivotal moment in American history— plays out, and aside from the larger issue of Unions: Good or Evil?, I am awestruck by the widespread disdain for teachers, a profession, as it happens, largely undertaken by women. But that’s another column.

The broad demonization of teachers is being underscored by the daily news cycle. It’s not just one or two states taking an antagonistic stance toward teachers; this is happening everywhere.

State education officials in Michigan have ordered closure of half the schools in Detroit, where class sizes in the high schools will swell to 60 students in the coming year.

In Providence, R.I., teachers were given a layoff notice last week. This doesn’t mean all 2,000 of them won’t have jobs next year (some of them definitely won’t). But it does mean they work the remainder of this year knowing they may not have jobs next year. Yay for workplace morale! I should point out that annual layoff notices are not uncommon and are, on the contrary, part of the fabric of our modern education system. They’re a yearly occurrence across the country. Sort of like Christmas. With lumps of coal. Delivered by Scrooge.

Back in Madison, Wisc., highly paid (non-unionized) administrators are refusing sick pay to teachers who were absent from work while protesting Walker’s proposed bill. Each of these administrators— who I know have never fudged on a sick day— is conveniently channeling an inner Helen Lovejoy. The poor children are not learning when a teacher spends a day in the capitol rotunda with her sign that reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

Never mind the civics lesson inherent in civil disobedience; these teachers should shut up and teach—and never deviate from mandated curriculum. Or else.

As if the headlines aren’t alarming enough, one little jaunt into the toxic waters of any comment section reveals a widespread derision.

“I love teachers.... for all their self righteous babble...” wrote someone calling himself Deucejack on The Huffington Post. “[T]hey don’t give two nickels about the kids they supposedly provide a service to. LMOA at teachers.... Now I’m laughing at the unions in their last nose dive.” One thing is certain: Douchejackass here could have used a better grammar teacher.

Comments like this are disturbingly abundant and wildly narrow in their vision. Just as in any other profession, there will always be what I call “driftwood” among teachers. There is a small subset of teachers who are underachievers, skaters, system-bilkers and incompetents. They exist and Sarah Palin is the poster child for this unrefudiateable fact. Her devotees serve as supporting evidence.

But, by and large, teachers teach precisely because they give at least—and usually far more than—two nickels about the children in their care. With a child six months into kindergarten, I’ve had an opportunity to spend time in the classroom and see what a teacher does when she’s set adrift by a society that progressively downgrades her worth.

With increasing class sizes, no aides, few support staff, absurdly limited supplies and resources, an endless barrage of new training requirements and too many too-busy-working-multiple-jobs-to-be-involved parents, a teacher puts a smile on her face and welcomes her children in the morning. Then she goes right on ahead and teaches her ass off.

While meeting district-, state- and federally mandated goals, she also acts as counselor, nurse, custodian, disciplinarian and parent. She manages personalities, fixes scrapes and cuts, wipes noses and tears. She helps her kids navigate ever-changing relationships and moods. At any given time, she’s attending to the hurt feelings of one child and attempting to engage another whose attention span is fleeting. She may be patiently problem solving with a child who struggles with a concept or assisting four others on a math test. Often, she’s doing any number of these things simultaneously.

In addition to all of this—and her prep work and training and certifications—she responds to perhaps the most demanding customers in her equation: parents, both those who respect what she does and those who don’t. There isn’t enough money in the world that could entice me to do even that part of the job, let alone the rest of it.

For seven hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks each year, for 13 years, we put our children in the care of teachers. But from the way many folks are vilifying them, you’d think our little bumpkins were spending time with Osama bin Laden.

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