It’s not the Teachers!

“more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter”. (“WhatMakes a Great Teacher”,The Atlantic, 2010)

Teachers are in the news. We don’t work enough hours, we don’t provide effective instruction, we haven’t solved every problem in American society.

But what I see in the proverbial ‘trenches’ is not what I read about in the news and on the blogs. In the trenches  I see is a bunch of teachers, both young and old,  trying their hardest to provide good learning experiences and good school experiences for students. For every lousy teacher we keep hearing about – the put  your feet up on the desk kind of teacher – I can show you dozens of teachers who go home at night and cry because they’re not sure they’re getting through or because of frustration with the system.

Last Monday, at teacher orientation, the director of curriculum and development repeated a line I had heard her use before: we can’t control what goes on in our students’ lives outside the classroom, so we need to focus on good instruction in the classroom.

It seems to make sense, doesn’t it? I mean we can’t control what kids eat for breakfast, we can’t control their parental supervision, and we certainly can’t control the amount of time they spend texting, watching TV, or gaming.  We can only manage the time they spend with us. For me, this means 45 minutes a day, 5 times a week.  And yet those 45 minutes, 5 times a week are not something I can  control either.  I can’t control scheduling issues, teacher shortages that leave class sizes unwieldy, technology failures, loudspeaker interruptions, and 90+ degree classrooms.  While it is pretty convenient for administrators, education officials, Arne Duncan, President Obama, and the American public to say if only the teachers were great, then our education system would be top notch, it is not the whole truth.

With over 3 million teachers in the United States, not all of us can be above average.  There are going to be some exceptional teachers and a lot of average teachers and a few clunkers. And just like in any workplace, those who are not performing should be let go (it can be done, it just takes administrator diligence.) But to rest the failures of the American education system and the achievement gap on teachers’ shoulders is capricious scapegoating.

These are not excuses for poor teaching; many educators are able to find ways to be effective and creative in spite of poor working conditions. But it is the reality of school and this reality does not promote or support effective instruction.

When a colleague and I spoke about some of these problems yesterday, she asked me why I stayed. And without a moment’ s hesitation, I replied, “Because I love my job.” I look at the teachers in my school and I see dedicated, concerned, hardworking people trying to cope within a flawed system. They have a genuine passion for education and helping young people succeed.

It is [simplistic to place] the total burden of providing effective teaching on individual teachers, rather than on society as a whole.” (Raymond A. Horn, Jr) Most of us just want to do our jobs and teach kids. We just wish the things outside of our control didn’t make teaching so damned difficult.


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