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It often seems that it’s always open season on teachers, that they are available for target practice in the form of harsh criticism or verbal and written abuse from current parents, former parents, current students, former students, administrators, lay leaders and, in the case of public education, public officials and the media.
This is unfair and painful because relative to most other professionals, even the best-paid teachers are not well paid. In fact, even by the standard of the teaching profession, few are well paid. Many more – and certainly in Jewish day schools and yeshivas – earn miserly salaries that often do not arrive on the scheduled pay date.
Of late, and especially in public education, there has been a disturbing escalation in the criticism of teachers. It hasn’t helped that severe budgetary constraints in cities and states have resulted in cutbacks, with benefits provided to faculty and staff being a good place to locate savings.
Admittedly, retirement at a relatively young age, hefty pension benefits that have become more onerous to government because of extended longevity, and generous medical coverage at a time when premiums have soared have contributed significantly to the feeling that there have been excesses – and that fiscal prudence dictates that existing arrangements must be challenged and altered.
There is now in public education a confrontational atmosphere, with teachers and unions seeking to protect what they have secured while others who claim their focus is on the bottom line going after not only what may have been excesses but also the dedication and competence of those who teach, as well as their right to organize.
Although unions are far from blameless, it merits noting they are not created to be instrumentalities of disinterestedness. Rather, like thousands of other organizations and groups, their mission is to secure what they can for those whom they represent. Inevitably, this results in a measure of overreaching in contract demands and, at times, in an attitude of protectiveness toward those who do not belong in a classroom.
We can hope that when the economic climate improves and public coffers are in better shape, the animosity that has arisen in recent years will be tempered. It is already a near certainty that many teachers who are now in the classroom will not get all the benefits they have come to expect. It’s also certain that there will be continued criticism of teachers, the focus being on what is achieved or not achieved in classrooms and not on the financial bottom line.
Insufficient attention is given to the sociological baggage brought into classrooms that affects educational outcomes. These are the negatives and even pathologies that undermine what schools and teachers can achieve – widespread conditions such as parental strife and family dysfunction, behavioral and emotional problems, sexual promiscuity, drugs, the impact of the street and of much of what is referred to as popular culture, including the Internet.
The last mentioned refers not to online teaching and the promise that it may or may not hold to add to or improve on the classroom experience, but rather the addictive nature of the Internet and its capacity to divert young people, as well as adults, away from their responsibilities.
Teachers and educators are also social workers and while some are miracle workers as they achieve wonders with students in their charge, it is more than a stretch to expect that teachers will accomplish miracles. Unfortunately, that is what is increasingly expected of faculty, as they are judged and evaluated by how students in their classrooms improve on test scores and on other standardized measurements, irrespective of the reality that children are not standardized and that too many have bad things happening in their lives.
This isn’t meant to excuse poor teachers. There are some who never should have been placed in a classroom and there are some who once had what is needed to teach effectively and either no longer have the requisite fire in their belly or for other reasons are not doing a good job. Those who have been hired but should not have been ought not be retained and that is the responsibility of principals and administrators. For those who have given years of good service, soft and empathetic means should be utilized to move them toward retirement.
Overwhelmingly, though, teachers are dedicated individuals who come to class with a determination to do a good job – and most do a good job despite the challenges they face.
Another point about the quality and capabilities of those who go into teaching: It’s been noted that one of the consequences of the Great Depression eighty years ago is that people of considerable learning and other skills who could not find other work or did not have business opportunities turned toward teaching careers and this had a beneficial impact on the quality of teaching in public education for more than a generation.
This was especially evident in math and science instruction, as well as English language skills, and it was true not only of public schools but of many private schools, including yeshivas. With the long postwar economic improvement, the incentive of such persons to go into basic education evaporated and there was an inevitable decline in quality, as it became increasingly difficult to attract top-notch persons to basic education.
It is unclear whether the severe recession and the poor job market we have experienced in recent years have resulted in basic education serving once more as a magnet to attract such persons. My hunch is that it has had a modest impact, but no more.
Whatever the quality of instruction, the root of the intense focus on teachers lies in other factors. Education is rightly viewed as not merely one more important service provided by government. Education goes to the heart of what societies seek to achieve. When a child fails, there are reverberations that likely intensify as the years go by. The stakes are therefore higher than for any other major public activity, medical care included.
This is at the mega or societal level. At the parental level, what counts is how one’s child is doing at a particular moment in a particular classroom, not necessarily how good the teacher may be overall or how other students in the same classroom are doing. The focus is narrow and parochial, entangled in both self-interest and emotions, yet it is also understandable why parents view what is occurring in the classroom through the prism of their own children.
Unavoidable as this is, it also results in unfairness toward teachers, especially as parents are themselves nowadays more emotionally involved in how their children are doing at school, becoming in a way big brothers and big sisters who feel they must protect their younger siblings. It is good in one sense that parents care, but the advantage of parental involvement can be offset by too narrow or insensitive scrutiny of what happens in a classroom.
I am confident that teachers at yeshivas and day schools are extraordinary in their devotion, spending much time outside the classroom in preparation and also seeking ways to better connect with their students. Nearly all of them are also social workers. They deserve our gratitude and respect, even if at times we may think they fall short of what we may want of them.
My admiration is without bounds, especially toward the women who teach in our schools. Many have significant family and home responsibilities. Invariably, they are exceedingly low paid and, invariably, they are exceedingly dedicated. They are among the jewels of religious Jewish life in the contemporary period.
Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. This is his sixtieth year working on behalf of Torah education.
About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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