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.