Remember when you were little and you saw one of your teachers somewhere other than school? It was as though a mythical creature had somehow come to life; a great Greek statue breaking free from its marble casing and descending from cloud covered cliffs to walk among us at the local grocery store or deli. We placed them high upon a pedestal as a community and as children we believed them to be divine.
Like everything else in America, the backlash against the teacher has officially begun. More than likely it began right here on Long Island. Unbelievable taxes, bloated school budgets and a recession will do that. It is no longer taboo for parents to speak out at school board meetings and decry the increase in teacher compensation and perks. The arguments against highly compensated teachers are becoming familiar and parents are beating the drum feverishly across Long Island. Summers off, shorter work hours and paid time off are driving a wedge between the people who rear our children and those who educate them.
But the growing anger against the teacher is misplaced. Our ire should be pointed at the teacher unions and at ourselves as parents.
Workers everywhere are beholden to the people they represent and, in the case of unionized workers, they are beholden also to the union that represents them. Teachers have an even higher reporting structure: Our children. Over the past couple of decades the teacher unions have acquired tremendous power; a power that has grown gradually but has finally reached the tipping point.
Teachers used to be financially under-compensated while working, but well taken care of in retirement. Over time the unions have whittled away at this notion and created an environment where teachers have incredible job security, and are well compensated during both their work lives and their retired lives. Today, everything seems to favor the teacher who has become the beneficiary of hard bargaining over many, many years. Like everything in life, this has come at a cost. It has placed parent against teacher, school board against union and left the students in the middle; now it has also cast the educator as the enemy.
A dear friend of mine, who is an elementary school teacher (and will remain nameless) provided some extremely enlightening context to this debate in a way that only a teacher can. She agreed that some compensatory elements have gone too far and that the unions have unfairly positioned the teachers against the public. The union has also created an atmosphere of fear in which teachers are afraid to speak out. But she noted, with scores of examples from her recent classes, that teaching itself looks nothing like it used to.
Our children are entering school woefully unprepared for life outside of the home. Many lack focus and energy as a result of poor diets and lax routines such as firm bedtimes and family meals. A good deal of incoming elementary students are unruly and challenge the most basic of authority, rebelling at the slightest instruction. Many are slovenly, lack proper hygiene and are devoid of any manners. Our teachers are then subjected to parental tirades asking why our children aren’t performing better, achieving more and accepting discipline.
Every year we send our children to school with more issues than ever before. Our kids are lethargic so we demand more physical education instead of putting the Nintendo in the drawer and sending them outside to play on the weekends. They are obese so we crack down on school lunch programs instead of teaching our children to make healthier choices or, heaven forbid, packing them a lunch. We fill them with prescription drugs and high fructose corn syrup, allow them to sit in front of a TV or computer screen for seven hours a day and demand a teacher’s aide, more time for tests, less home work and special attention in the classroom when they underperform. At the same time we demand higher levels of achievement from our kids and make them take three languages, two instruments, a sport for every season, community service and a resume building internship. We divorce one another, yell in the home and allow them to watch adult programs and play violent video games; then we wonder why bullying exists.
The lack of parental discipline and common sense child rearing sends children to school behind the eight ball. As the publisher of a newspaper that aggressively advocates for children with special needs this may seem like a counterintuitive argument. Yet this phenomenon has placed an undue burden on the special needs resources in our schools and threatens to sap badly needed attention to children who truly suffer from developmental disabilities.
If we as parents want the right to yell and scream at school board meetings then it’s time we stop vilifying teachers. Have the unions gone too far and added fuel to the fire? Absolutely. Common sense must be restored to negotiations regarding teacher compensation and benefits. But if we continue as a society to abdicate the role of parent and place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of our teachers then we shall reap what we sow.