There is an old saying that has stuck with me my entire life: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” On the one hand teachers are canonized (sometimes called philosophers and prophets, professors, almost always male, who are initially ridiculed and later revered). Some are teased affectionately (absent-minded professors). On the other hand some are dismissed as irrelevant and out of touch.
Teachers of the young and old (i.e., learners not currently in the workforce), are found to be incapable, unworthy, not so smart, or at the very least, dismissed as unimportant. These teachers, including the professors, are often female and they work their hearts out in a peculiarly modern and distinctly American educational system that is gradually killing off the very individuals to whom it entrusts its cultural, economic and political future.
I confess that I, too, have occasionally felt ashamed and guilty for being “merely” a teacher, as if teaching were the profession of losers, of those who are there simply because they couldn’t make it in the “real world,” the corporate world. Teaching could not possibly be an honorable choice, a first choice, a joyous choice, a true avocation! I know better, of course, and my own experience tells me so in the most profound ways on a regular basis. But with constant cultural reinforcement the teacher stigma attaches and crawls beneath the surface of the skin, eventually lodging in both the brain and the heart.
Frankly, I am actually more fortunate than most: because I always taught at the university level I have received a bit more respect than many of my counterparts who teach pre-kindergarten through high school. But there are others who cannot seem to get any respect at all: teachers who are entrusted with the next generation of leaders when these students are at the tenderest of cognitive ages, and teachers whose gift is engaging the sunset generation who are finally retired and interested in learning for learning’s sake through adult education programs. Learning for learning’s sake actually hearkens back to much older notions of a true academy that has breadth and depth and is much more than a job mill. Let me add quickly that I am also a strong supporter of professional programs that prepare students for immediate work in the contemporary world. We need workers who are skilled and who think deeply and adapt quickly to changing circumstances and requirements.
There is a palpable but unspoken pecking order of academic disciplines and institutions, so those who work diligently at the community college level are somehow considered less worthy than those who teach at four-year institutions. And those who teach at Ivy League institutions are somehow more worthy than those who teach at “ordinary” colleges and universities. And those who teach science are more worthy than those who teach art or literature.
Teachers’ workloads are increasing now at an astounding pace since their unions are being systematically undermined and dismantled, their funding is the first to go, they are being asked to make bricks without straw, all too often paying for classroom materials out of their own pockets, and ultimately they are blamed for underperforming in what amounts to a variety of combat situations in which teachers literally face life and death on a daily basis.
This is where we are now. And yet, when successful entrepreneurs are asked what got them where they are today, most inevitably remember a teacher who saw them, who protected them when they were being bullied or dismissed, who encouraged their inventiveness and creativity, and who assumed they had something valuable to say and show and share with the world…who assumed they had something valuable to do!
I have been such a teacher for others and teachers have been such a guiding force for me throughout my entire life as well. In the deepest sense, that support is probably what fostered my desire to become a teacher too. I know that what we and they do matters, whether or not portions of the country or community or the world see our contributions as extraneous. I do not have supportive data at my fingertips, but I daresay that disdain for the teaching profession is a peculiarly American phenomenon and I would love to know why. Eventually all of us will have plenty to regret if we do not understand and support teachers and teaching as a form of worthy “doing.”
Let’s hear it for the teachers! At last I have washed away the brainwashing and I can be proud to count myself among them.