Scapegoating Teachers

Teachers have to be among the most simultaneously maligned and hero-worshiped group of public employees in the United States. One class of people seems to believe that teachers are everything that is wrong with our society, with these kids today, with the failure of US culture. Another group seems to think that teachers are fantastic and amazing, mounting them on pedestals, but in that group’s eagerness to talk about how great teachers are, not much time is given to talking about how to make the jobs of teachers easier, how to protect access to wages and benefits for teachers, how to improve conditions in schools for both teachers and students; teachers must be superheroes in this framework, rather than human beings.

The peculiar bile reserved for teachers bears closer examination both within the larger context of the strange hatred people seem to have for public employees, and within the context of the problems with the current system of education in the United States. Many people do not seem to understand the daily work lives of teachers as well as the kinds of tasks put on them, and how these burdens affect their ability to do their jobs. They also don’t give teachers nearly enough credit for the importance of the work they do; and not in a token kind of way, but in a way that actually generates real support. Teachers don’t need cheerful signs in the windows of local businesses, they need members of the community standing behind them.

Like other public employees, teachers are widely believed to be living off the fat of the government. People assume they make great wages and get absurd benefits like paid time off, sick days, access to health care, payments into pension funds, and more. In fact, teachers don’t make the greatest wages, let alone benefits, which is one reason why they sometimes strike; to protect their jobs so that they can do their jobs better. The funny thing about being overworked and underpaid, you see, is that it’s harder to serve your students well. Teachers don’t strike because they’re greedy, but because they have concerns about their working conditions.

Packed into classrooms with far too many students, teachers are faced with limited resources, often dipping into their own funds to pay for basic classroom supplies. And teaching isn’t confined to the classroom; teachers also need to grade homework, develop lesson plans, conduct research, attend further education programmes, meet with staff and other personnel, and coordinate school activities. These tasks go above and beyond the hours of the school day, and many teachers also have to deal with added pressures like interacting with law enforcement and Child Services in the course of trying to serve and protect their students.

Teaching is not a 9-3:30 job with all the perks and benefits you could want. It’s exhausting, whether you’re working with kindergarten students or you’re adjunct faculty at an institution of higher learning. And, like other public employees, teachers are tied to the whipping post for problems with the system they work in when these problems are manifestly not their fault. Teachers are blamed for ‘poor student performance’ by people who have a hazy idea of what that even means, but seem to think it has something to do with standardised testing; there’s no thought to the fact that it might be hard for students to ‘perform’ if their schools are overcrowded, leaky, moldy, filled with garbage, hindered by overflowing and broken toilets, a lack of equipment, and poor maintenance. Apparently students can magically excel in schools that are literally falling apart, so long as they have the right teacher.

It’s a grave injustice to teachers to demand that they overcome the tremendous institutional obstacles placed in the way of students while simultaneously accepting pay and benefits cuts, extensions of hours and job responsibilities, and constant pressure from ‘school reformers’ who don’t really have any idea of how schools are run, let alone what would benefit teachers and students. Instead of allocating funds for maintenance and repairs, for example, school improvement programmes will demand that teachers attend additional developmental training. Instead of working on class sizes by expanding schools and hiring more personnel, such programmes will tell teachers that they just need to work harder.

The scapegoating of teachers becomes part of the larger bootstrapping narratives that infest US politics and culture. Failures are blamed not on the complex series of factors that contribute to success or lack thereof in academic environments, but on teachers as individuals; they should try harder, be better, overcome obstacles, look to the lessons provided by exceptional teachers in other schools. The factors that might be contributing to exceptional teachers, like the social and institutional support that go into better outcomes in the classroom, are neatly ignored; these teachers evidently are just better, and the fact that their classes are smaller, their schools are better maintained, parents are more involved, and the administration support them is just a coincidence.

Society seems to love scapegoating teachers in particular because it combines two of our favourite things: complaining about public employees and claiming to think of the children. Teachers represent the best of both worlds, charged with looking after our youth and being hired by the government to do so. Yet, in all the constant ragging on teachers that seems everpresent in conversations about education in the US, there’s little to no discussion of administrations, school facilities, and funding. The general public seems to believe that teachers exist in a vacuum, floating about waiting to administer learning to children, and that teachers alone hold the key to the success of the public education system.

It’s a heavy burden to carry, whether you’re being screamed at or told you’re the hope of the future.