Ten years ago, as I struggled through my first days and weeks of teaching, I was amazed at how majestic and powerful the veteran teachers seemed. They approached their craft with single-minded devotion, self-discipline was worn into their every expression, and a sense of altruistic self-sacrifice seemed to guide their every move. The pace of one single day seemed like a marathon, but I knew I was among a cast of heroes.
But I also sensed bitterness. Many of these teachers had worked for many years with crowded classrooms, and experienced school reconfigurations that blamed teachers for the failure of their students in poorly funded schools. How, I wondered as they retired or left the profession for other reasons, could such dedicated, knowledgeable, experienced educators simply depart after twenty five to thirty years with little recognition for their life’s work?
Despite the strife I saw, I committed to giving my all to my profession. With a group of colleagues, I co-founded the Franklin High School Advanced Scholar Program, dramatically increasing participation and success in AP classes by students of color or poverty at our school. I also worked to found a writing project for first-generation students navigating the college admissions process.
Last summer, for my efforts to bring equity to education, the NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Committee awarded me the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award. More than anything, this award has made me look harder at the fantastic, too-often unacknowledged educators around me.
As I recently departed from a Monday staff meeting, I noticed fellow teacher Portia Hall setting up plastic plates and cups for the weekly AP Constitution team dinner, which she stays at school every week until 9:30 to teach in preparation for the competition; as I walked toward my classroom one morning at 7:20, I noticed math teacher Trevor Butenhoff’s room full of wide-eyed students who had arrived early (as they do every day) to work toward understanding math concepts with his artful guidance. As I thought about who my teaching heroes are, I remembered my former English teacher James Duggan (a legendary educator who taught for more than thirty years in the Buffalo Public Schools) who took the time to come and visit my classroom because he, like so many retired teachers, never stopped caring.
While passion surrounds me, I had to ask myself why the society as a whole does not honor the art of teaching? Why do so many great teachers leave the profession with feelings of bitterness toward those who manage education? What can be done to bring more respect to the profession, so that all teachers feel appreciated by their students and the society as a whole?
The reality is that few other professions, aside from the monastic life, social work, firefighting, and police work rely so heavily on employee altruism. No other profession requires this altruism and also consistently and publicly attacks and undermines the practitioners while refusing to fully fund their work. Really, it’s absurd that teachers should be martyrs who purchase their own classroom materials, take abuse from other members of society, and feel ashamed about negative outcomes in a society that does not provide adequate support for education.
The solution can be found in having the self-respect to share one’s own successful practices, and celebrating the success of fellow teachers. We must develop an internal, teacher-led culture of self-respect in which we use social media, blogs, professional educator contests, unused or poorly planned “professional development days” in our school calendar, and local and national media to re-create our professional identities by taking the time to share about our successes.
We must also work together to demand weekly or monthly teacher-recognition news to be shared with parents by our administrators and district leaders. Those who have come of age in the time of teacher-shaming must remember that sharing teacher success is still, ultimately, not about the teachers—it is about leaving a trail of good work that will pave the way for a greater understanding of best practices; it is about creating a positive relationship with the public in a manner that will garner greater respect for our profession; it is about, above all, sharing our passion in a way that celebrates the success of future generations of students.
For every teacher who puts in extra time, there are hundreds of students who feel her passion, her dedication, and her desire to see that light in their eyes. In honor of each child’s dignity, educators must realize and celebrate our value.
Susan Anglada Bartley teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon