A Reflection on the Ego of the Teaching Profession
I had a different article in mind for today, but a conversation I had during work yesterday with my screenwriting partner Matt (find his website here) inspired me to create a different piece. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to share!
|Credit/Source: Zen Pencils, zenpencils.com|
I am a teacher.
I have been a teacher for more than ten years, in various faculties. I’ve taught at private and public school. I’ve taught individuals and I’ve taught classrooms full of kids. I’ve taught at the college level and the elementary school level. Given my experience, it seems that the label of teacher is inescapable. Indeed, it seems I am the only one in my life actively contesting the title.
I am a writer.
I am a musician.
I am a craftsman.
I am many other things to myself, my family, and my friends, but to people who have just met me, it all gets boiled down to “teacher.” Why then, do I rebel?
Carrying Crosses for Kids
Teachers get a lot of respect. They always speak about their low pay, bad hours, and tough environments, and the media is always willing to echo these sentiments. They speak of an altruistic calling, a dedication to the youth of America that are not served by parents and social bonds. Teachers work with gang members and twisted youths. They form chaotic, malevolent souls into functioning, well-adjusted young adults capable of the highest levels of success, perhaps even ascending so high as to become teachers themselves, and return to the their communities to raise up other unfortunate souls.
Those few who are willing to oppose the status quo and point out that they work only 160 days a year and are free to leave at the same time as the kids, or who dare to question the proposition that all teachers are good and deserving of more than their “low” salary, or who have the gumption to point out that most of America’s schools are failing their students are either laughed at or called horrendous, deplorable names. They hate the poor, they hate the children, and they hate the minorities because public school is an unmitigated good. Certainly in modern America there is no profession so beyond reproach, so beyond criticism, so beyond the need for justification as the teacher.
The truth is that teachers, like any other profession, are staffed by human beings. Human beings falter. They fall. They make bad decisions. They may not care. They may care too much. They may be wicked, violent, sociopathic, cruel, mean, or downright ugly, and they may hate children.
Most aren’t. Most are average people with average skills producing average incomes and living an average, American life, just like the average person at any other job. Some teachers are amazing at what they do, and really do produce great outcomes for the students that they teach. They may even positively affect their lives. They are not, however, supermen on saints.
The first fall comes in the assumption that by entering a profession that has some exceptional individuals that one is therefor also exceptional. It is a simple logical fallacy. Not all computer programmers are billionaires like Bill Gates. Not all pro football players are as good as Joe Montana. Not all doctors are good at their jobs, even if they have license, and they have people’s very lives in their hands (sometimes).
Despite this reality, I doubt you have met a teacher that considers himself bad, or admits he doesn’t care, or brags about how cruel he is to kids. Most teachers, at least outwardly, beam with pride for their work. Unlike many other professions, it is nigh impossible to accurately gauge outcomes unless you are a student, parent, or administrator. Talk to one of these groups, and you are likely to have a much better idea how many truly awful teachers there are out there.
The second fall comes with the assumption that a profession is, or even can be, particularly virtuous. This is a fallacy I often point out to those who seem to hero worship police, who are, just like teachers, staffed entirely by flawed human beings. A profession cannot be virtuous; only people can be virtuous. Are the actions of teachers virtuous?
They are not (usually) vicious either, but they are not virtuous. The job (the real job, not what is trumpeted through the media) of a teacher is to convey a set of knowledge and skills to a student, then to certify the attainment of said skills with the student. That’s it. Teachers are not hired as surrogate parents, life coaches, or heart menders, but are hired as teachers. For these services, they are compensated. In my opinion, as a teacher, most compensation is fair, particularly as one moves up the salary scale with time. The unions that represent teachers are, at least, quite good at what they do.
The profession itself requires confidence, poise, a wide skill set, patience, understanding, and professionalism. At least, that is what is required to do well as a teacher. Unfortunately, many of those things are never rewarded in the profession. What is rewarded is sticking around, not making waves, and jumping through the many ubiquitous hoops that are imposed by the government in order enter public school work. Why then, do people expect quality from all teachers when none of the incentives point toward it? Teachers must be self-motivated to be good; not all of them are.
We all have a need for ego. We have a need to receive validation, someone to say that we are valuable in some sense, to someone. Teachers have this need as well, but unlike other professions, such attorneys or doctors, the rewards for bringing value are neither obvious nor readily apparent to others. An attorney gets a windfall from a big lawsuit. A doctor brings home a big check from an important surgery or sought-after specialty, or can point to a person and say, “I treated his cancer!” A teacher gets paid the same no matter what, and few people outside of the school site see what effect, if any, a teacher has had in the world. Tangible outputs are missing.
The need for ego, however, does not depart, and so teachers invest a great deal of themselves and their energy in hyping up the profession. They share comics, articles, and aphorisms that all point to the importance of schooling, how important teachers are, and how important their subject area is for the children and the world. Immediate validation is absent, and so it must be created. An example of what I’m talking about is below, from which I have generated the abstraction at the beginning:
The truth of course is that very few people ever speak the way of the villain above, yet teachers somehow envision that they are bottom of the social ladder, held back economically, and fighting for the respect passed out to everyone else. Teachers receive a fair salary and are well-respected in the community (certainly more so than the “salesman,” who in tropes is a swindler and crook because he gets paid to give people what they want). Again, the attitude exists because of a need for external validation, not because of reality.
Teaching has both monetary and psychic rewards for the teacher, but the monetary reward is not so great as to impress anyone, and the psychic rewards are witnessed by nobody but the teacher.
Why I Rebel
I rebel against the label because I do not want the external validation that is given to me almost automatically when I state my vocation. I do not want people to respect me because I happen to be a teacher. I know they haven’t witnessed me in the classroom or seen my educational outputs. I don’t deserve that amount of respect because I have produced nothing tangible for the person giving out the respect.
I do, however, desire validation for the things in my life that are tangible. I wrote two books last year, and I’m publishing a third right now on this website. I’ve written several screenplays with my friend and fellow teacher Matt Wellman(find his site here). These are self-evident creations. They exist; you can read them. I don’t need to share comics about the plight of the writer, or his low salary, or his low social standing. This is because the work exists. It can be witnessed. Validation and satisfaction flows from it because it is tangible and real. I want to be loved for my creations that can be seen. I want you to read them, and enjoy them, and pass them along to someone else. And if you enjoyed them, I will accept your respect, your honor, and your love.
I am a writer.
I am also a teacher.
If I have done something as a teacher – changed your life as a student, taught you something valuable or unique, or helped your child succeed – then you may respect me for the title, and I will call my mission as a teacher a success. If, however, you don’t interact with me as a teacher, please do not adore me for the profession that I share with so many others.