I came across this reader comment in response to John Stevens's post "How Other Virginia Districts are Handling Budget Cuts")–I couldn't stop thinking about how frustrated the writer must feel that she isn't respected for her job, of how difficult it must be to get up in the morning to go to work thinking that the people she works for don't appreciate her. This must be a common frustration for most, if not all, public school teachers. I hear it from co-workers; I read it in the local newspapers; I see it on nationally recognized websites. Round Hill's Steven Greenburg's recent statements in Leesburg Today are familiar to us all: Teachers are "[t]he lowest paid white collar worker in the United States," who [...] "educate, love and protect our most precious citizens (also known as "our future") without restroom breaks all day, and have to eat their lunch in five minutes." I can't know to what degree the writer who feels she doesn't get the respect she deserves shares Mr. Greenburg's sentiments, but I'm sure she sympathizes strongly with this guy from Round Hill.
"We are a dual-teacher income family and we do not make the median household income....that is why both my husband and I have second jobs. We understand we have to do more with less, and we're fine with that....since we chose to live and work in Loudoun County. It's a shame that people just don't respect what we do - maybe some of you should spend some time in a classroom...just saying :)"
Public education's challenges are not simple, and there's no simple answer to why these teachers feel unappreciated. However, I couldn't help but be struck by the statement immediately following her plaint about respect: "... maybe some of you should spend some time in a classroom...just saying." She's right. Most of us don't know what's going on in her classroom and can't fully appreciate what a typical (or atypical) work day is like for her. This, unfortunately – but understandably – makes it so easy for us to assume the teacher is the one to blame for all the ills of public education. She is faceless. We can't respect her because we don't trust her. We can't trust and understand her, much less empathize with her, because we don't know her.
And even though I may be working in the classroom next door to hers, I don't even know her; I don't even know what she does or how she does it. I think her invitation to her students' parents and the public in general is great, but so much more can be accomplished if she invited others – those closer to home – into her classroom as well.
Consider that the teacher's job is a strangely isolated one, ironically so, considering the number of people in the school building. We very likely spend pretty much our whole day as the only adult in a room in front of a daily stream of 50-80 children. We very likely have little professional interaction with another adult, since there isn't one in our work area with us, and our schedules and physical environment don't permit us to meet with other adults for much more than a few minutes at a time.
It's also very unlikely any of our administrators ever see us for more than a few minutes at a time as well, and very few of those moments are in our classroom with the students. It's just as unlikely that our department head ever sees us in action, and guidance counselors are left out as well.
As a result, other than through the eyes of our juvenile audiences, the public doesn't know how well we know our subject, the public doesn't know how well we manage a safe classroom, the public doesn't know our pedagogical philosophy and methodology, the public doesn't know how our grading practices compare to those of other teachers, the public doesn't know how rigorous our lessons are, the public doesn't know how well our students do on SOLs, the public doesn't know how... well, the public doesn't know very much. Consequently, it's difficult for the public to respect what it doesn't know or understand.
The school is set up physically and organizationally to "insolate" us. Typically, the door to the classroom is closed, effectively making it a silo, insulated and isolated from the other silos in the building. We may not realize it, but this does much to contribute to our feelings of lack of respect.
You see, this lack of meaningful respect encompasses those others missing from our classrooms – our colleagues and managers. Since our principals, assistant principals, department heads, guidance counselors, and fellow teachers are rarely in a position to directly observe us, they cannot truly know how well we perform our jobs. Again, no one can truly respect what she does not know or understand.
Teachers pretty much operate in a world with no real feedback. Recently, the Los Angeles Times incited the ire of teachers everywhere when it published rankings of LA teachers based on the high stakes exams results of their students. Evaluating teachers based solely on students' test scores is controversial, and rightly so, but when it's the only yardstick available to the consumer, it's unsurprising the newspaper took this step.
What was most interesting and lost amid the hoopla of teachers picketing the newspaper's offices was the observation of one Los Angeles teacher: this veteran of six years actually was grateful for this data, as incomplete and flawed as it may be, because it was the only meaningful feedback on his performance he had ever received from his employer.
It's difficult to be respected when no one knows what you do. It's difficult to gain the trust and understanding of our customers, colleagues, and administrators when they don't really know what we're doing well, and what we need coaching in. If we want to open our doors to respect, we need to increase transparency and trust by opening our classroom doors and organizational windows to those we work with and for.