Hot for Teacher

Scandals and low pay lead to the decline of the American teaching profession

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Dec 03, 2007

Editor's Note: After a rash of scandals involving American teachers, the reputation of the profession has gone from bad to worse. New America Media editor Andrew Lam laments the state of teacher-hood, especially when compared to the ingrained respect for teachers that he grew up with. Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

The yoga class was near maximum capacity. There was a spot up front but it usually belonged to D, a teacher who practices yoga with us plebes when not teaching. So I moved to the crowded second row. My new neighbor, however, was clearly annoyed at having to rearrange her mat. “You’re a paying customer,” she said. “D’s late. He should move, not you.”

“He’s a teacher,” I offered meekly as she scowled and turned away.

During class, while doing my stretching and striving for inner calm and peace, it occurred to me that despite having met and commingled, East and West are, in some significant ways, still miles apart.

Back in my native homeland, Vietnam, I used to bow. As a grade school student, with arms folded in front, and eyes staring at my sandaled feet, I would mumble, “Thua thay!” – Greetings Teacher! — when meeting a teacher. In fact, it took me half a year or so after having arrived in America before I stopped that kowtowing habit, which my American classmates in 7th grade had found either funny or quite bizarre.

Though my innate sense of respect (mixed undoubtedly with a modicum of fear) for the teaching profession remains after all these years, I recognize that my sentiment is a bit out of sync with the collective American psyche these days. Distrust and the willingness to believe the worst about the teaching profession has long caused it to suffer in America, but lately it seems that the teacher’s image has been smeared and dragged through the mud.

Consider the latest news: The Associated Press in a nationwide investigation showed that between 2001 and 2005, 2,570 educators faced disciplinary actions for sexual misconduct allegations. Epitomizing this trend is the recent story of a female teacher who chauffeured a 13 year-old boy across the border to Mexico and allegedly molested him there. Then there’s the story of a teacher suing the school to carry a concealed semiautomatic handgun to school for self-protection in Oregon. In fact, it seems that there’s a horror story about teachers that pops up every few weeks, and that the American teacher is quickly replacing the Catholic priest as the new whipping boy.

Yet the number of those facing disciplinary actions in the AP report are around 0.085 percent of all public educators in the United States, which number around 3 million. And to be fair, far fewer stories of good and effective teachers are being told in the media than tales of bad ones.

If testimonies from successful and famous Americans are any indication, good teachers are still plenty. Many luminaries continue to cite teachers as the main reason of their successes. Tom Hanks, for instance, thanked his high school drama teacher when winning his Academy award for his role in Philadelphia. Oprah is famously quoted toting her elementary school teacher, Mrs. Mary Duncan Wharton. "I know I wouldn't be where I am today without my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan,” she noted. “She so believed in me, and for the first time, made me embrace the idea of learning. I learned to love learning because of Mrs. Duncan." And James Baldwin owes much of his formative years to his white schoolteacher who recognized his talents and took him to plays and brought him books. “She was really a very sweet and generous woman and went to a great deal of trouble to be of help to us, particularly during one awful winter,” he recalled in Notes of a Native Son.

Influential teachers continue to instruct and inspire many youngsters in this country but something in the zeitgeist now seems to deflate that old nobility, while the atmosphere of disrespect and suspicion thickens. “Teaching is not a lost art,” the historian Jacques Barzun once observed, “but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”

Student-teacher relationships seem to suffer in a world where MySpace and Facebook can undermine integrity and privacy – not to mention sites like RateMyTeacher.com, where students can grade their teachers. Students now blog about their teachers, and teachers, fearful of defamation, vigilantly troll the Internet. The children’s hour has extended to 24-7 online, and this too adds to the cloud of negativity and contempt.

Meanwhile, American reading habits have turned south. Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day, according a recent NEA study. The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. Almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure, which may explain why one out of three does not make it to high school graduation.

As teachers cite the lack of parents’ involvement as a primary cause of faltering of education, parents blame that lack of discipline as the major cause. Both camps, however, can agree on one thing: lack of funding is the second biggest problem.

Indeed, even if nobility is still associated with the profession, the economy is far from showing its appreciation. Many young people who would have gone into teaching have told me they were deterred by financial insecurity. “I would consider teaching seriously but if I ever want to own a house in the Bay Area, I might as well forget that profession,” a graduate from Berkeley recently told me. In Silicon Valley, in order to keep talented teachers, there are now housing units being built for many who couldn’t afford a home, as the average salary for a beginning high school teacher is $44,000 in a county where the median income is around $85,000.

Something about our fast-paced, super consumerist society seems to have robbed the teaching vocation the respect it deserves, disposing that once concrete and tender human relationship to a matter of mere transaction. "You’re a paying customer!” said the yoga student. If in my mother’s world of North Vietnam, the word “teacher” is still interchangeable with the word “father,” in the world I live in now, I fear teaching as a profession is in danger of being reduced to "humble scutwork."

Related Articles:

Report Offers Grim Look Into America’s Education System

Schools Can Overcome Achievement Gap

Learning To Succeed: A young man’s journey through eight different schools to find academic stability

Articles by Andrew Lam


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D.B. on Dec 11, 2007 at 18:04:06 said:

You capture a lot of the complexities of the status of teachers. And for sure, you are never going to see here the kind of respect shown for teachers in some other cultures, including the Vietnamese. But guess what, teachers now rank third in prestige according to the annual Harris poll on professions.

Prestige has gone up for teachers this year so they
even outrank doctors. It\'s now firefighters no. 1, still up there after 9/11, scientists second and teachers third followed by doctors and down the line. Professions dealing with money are in the cellar.


Deborah White on Dec 04, 2007 at 00:25:01 said:

Charles Barkley once stated during an interview with Charlie Rose, that he felt teachers should be held up above professional atheletes, lawyers, and even doctors because without teachers-none of the other professionals would exist.
It is a difficult profession to work in. Long hours, a lot of prep work, and often minimal to no support. It is a profession that has the seed sowers of knowledge trying to labor in an enviroment that is often less than fertile. There is a tremendous need to revamp thinking about education in America. Not by adding more tests and cutting more courses due to budget constraints. There needs to be a national movement to bring schools in line with the needs of the national population.
I just finished up my last year as a teacher in May of this year. I do not know if I will ever return to a classroom again. I love what teaching produces! But I was really tired of the attitudes, demands, and lack of support. The shortages of professionals is not surprising either. Too much demand is placed on teachers with officials paying more attention to the testing portion-instead of the children and staff.


Tammy Maitland on Dec 03, 2007 at 20:49:45 said:

Thank you, Andrew. At first I thought I was going to have to defend my profession, but your article seems to be right on. I'm in my 3rd official year of teaching, and am getting more and more concerned about the profession. For me, it's not so much the pay, but the lack of time to do my job. Myself, and other teachers, often go to work early, stay late, work at home, and work on the weekends. I work many extra, unpaid hours, yet still feel unprepared and behind. I am dedicated, but it's starting to feel like an uphill struggle and I'm often not enjoying it. I hope that things can change in this country because we need teachers to truly be supported in their task, so that our future generations will be an educated and confident group of young people able to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

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