MY Turn: In Defence of Teachers

It is said that teaching is the profession that creates all other professions. That's a beautiful compliment for a job that often does not receive the respect one would predict given all of the platitudes bestowed upon teachers. "God bless you!" "What a noble profession" and "I couldn't do it, but thank goodness there are people like you out there" are a few that I've received.

Like many of my colleagues, I didn't attend college intending to become a teacher. I worked in a related profession in youth services, helping high-school dropouts find social and vocational outlets other than the streets and dead-end jobs. Though the work was often rewarding, I realized I could be more influential working with young people before they became a statistic. Thus began my career in education.

Some family and friends seemed to think the change was only temporary. Several asked, "How long do you think you'll teach?" Some inquired whether I had administrative aspirations. When one year became two, then three, etc., some friends actually questioned my sanity. Surely I wouldn't remain a lowly classroom teacher, they would insinuate, as if teaching is a stop-gap job. Unfortunately, too many people view teaching as a fallback, insurance, something stable to get them from their last corporate layoff to the next higher-paying job.

If those types of comments aren't bewildering enough, I still hear chiding responses about my "cream-puff" schedule. This always reminds me of a remark a salty veteran teacher once made to me: "If a teacher tells you she is done with her work anytime before 7 p.m., she is lying or she isn't doing her job." What is sad about that statement is that it is not only true, it's sometimes an understatement. Eight or nine o'clock can be more like it, after a day that began at five or six a.m.

Summers off? Think again. Teachers who truly aspire to make their mark and contribute only their very best to our nation's future enroll in summer training courses and continue their education in a constant pursuit to perfect their craft. We are a profession of lifelong learners. In a continually changing world, it's not only advised but imperative that we never cease to improve and devour each new piece of research that reveals to us some small piece of the education puzzle.

"Don't you get bored doing the same thing each day?" is another question I get a lot. It's a teacher's windfall if any two given class periods are identical and flow according to the lesson plan, let alone an entire day or more. What many people don't understand is that we teachers are working with wiggling, chatting children with varied needs. They are not robots who perform exactly as we direct without exception. Teachers are not on autopilot—we make thousands of decisions each day while working hard to produce a quality product that provides each student with what she needs and deserves. Teaching isn't simply perching at a lectern and pontificating to hungry minds; it's being an educator, a mentor, a parent, a nurse, a social worker, a friend, a diplomat and an expert on the curriculum. In short, we are professionals.

After all of the long hours, grueling days, mountains of paperwork, emotional exhaustion and misperceptions about the profession that I dearly love and would trade for no other, we continue to pour ourselves into the work because it's too important not to. How can we not give all of ourselves, our intellect and our talents to this work? After all, it is our current students whom we will be voting for in a future presidential election, who will care for us when we're ill and who will educate our grandchildren.

Notice I've said nothing about increasing teachers' pay, improving benefits or strong-arming uninvolved parents. Though those are all valid topics, they are not any more important than the need to increase an emergency medical technician's near minimum-wage compensation. What can easily be increased in education is the value placed upon the service that teachers provide to society. So the next time it's tempting to quiz a teacher about why she's not doing something more lucrative or supposedly more challenging with her talents, rib her about what is perceived to be a workday designed for the golf course or—worst of all—liken her job to a teenage babysitter's, offer up something utterly free: respect. A little of it goes a long way.