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It's Time to Stop Taking Teachers For Granted

While driving, I’ll sometimes be idling behind a car with a “26.2” sticker on its rear bumper. The sticker signifies that someone with access to the vehicle has completed a marathon race, which consists of running 26 miles, 385 yards. That achievement deserves to be boasted about. It’s the only bumper decoration I encounter that unfailingly inspires respect. It reminds me of my unrunnerish kid days when, to complete a hundred yard dash, I’d have to book an overnight motel stay.

This morning, I wondered about public reaction to another, hypothetical, bumper sticker reading, “I Am A Teacher.” This thought occurred as I scanned news of dire teacher shortages in many school districts around the country, a situation previously unimaginable. Would a dwindling supply of teachers confer on that bumper sticker the admiration and respect “26.2” generally elicits? Would numbers of other drivers lament to themselves, “Gee, I wish we had one of those for our kids!”

As a long-time teacher and teacher-educator, I need no convincing that, as H. G. Wells remarked, civilization is, indeed, a race between education and catastrophe. It’s a truth, unfortunately, that many non-educators are oblivious to. The fact that public education has always seemed to be there for offspring of the citizenry has made it seem like a birthright. What would be the consequences of disruption of that particular supply chain? I doubt that possibility has ever been contemplated.

Experience has shown me that most professional educators are competent individuals, well-motivated and idealistic in practical ways. That description, naturally, doesn’t apply to all of them. Just as there are inferior lawyers and medical practitioners, there are teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. I can, without affection or nostalgia, recall a few I encountered when I attended public school. And certainly, in the course of my teaching, I met a small number who made me uneasy when they referred to themselves as my “colleagues.”

Overall, however, my classroom years both as teacher and student indicated people like that are in the distinct minority. Having taught for close to four decades in three public high schools, one experimental public elementary school, and three universities, I found the vast majority of my fellow teachers to be conscientious, diligent people. We, too, should be entitled to think of ourselves as marathoners of a sort, facing constant challenges to our imaginations and our energy. And I think most of us understood that, for us, a finish line never really exists. Every classroom accomplishment is an on-ramp that accesses roads to further intellectual exploration. We can take satisfaction in achievements of the moment, but never really rest on them.

Really good teachers believe in what they teach and are convinced that its substance can enrich the lives of their students. Lofty and abstract as that sounds, it’s true. Classroom content can open previously locked doors in the mind and imagination; it can help illuminate pathways to self-fulfillment and also lead to collective betterment. Influential teachers aren’t simply pedants who, with minor changes, spout out the same script year after year. They adapt what they teach to the needs of those facing them at the moment. Sure, some elements of the curriculum, necessarily prescriptive, are solidly embedded. My English Department colleagues and I wanted our students to master the rudiments of grammar and usage, but not simply to pay obeisance to rules. These considerations are means to ends. Understanding and implementing them strengthens writing and makes it more effective. Most important, we hoped students would eventually adopt writing as a habit, an incentive for and means to self-discovery, even if that meant--heaven forfend--temporarily disregarding occasional questionable usage. Mechanical considerations can always be dealt with later; content exists now and should be preserved in words.

As a beginning teacher, practical realities confronted me from the start. The first was apparent immediately. Teachers were shamefully underpaid. But we knew what we were getting into when we chose to go into a profession we enjoyed and which provided personal satisfaction. Commitment to that kind of abstract reward led us to become teachers. Unfortunately, making that choice entailed adaption to being underpaid. The fact that we acclimated to financial injustice without constant complaining protected the public from regular lamentations about our level of compensation. And besides, truth to tell, the parsimoniousness eased the tax burden of homeowners, so they weren’t about to protest against our situation, especially when it benefitted them.

That the public has no deep comprehension of multiple and complex daily challenges marking classrooms makes identification with tasks of teachers unlikely. For instance, there is the imperative to adapt teaching methods to individual needs. I taught, initially, five classes a day, each containing about thirty students, and clearly, one size couldn’t fit all. The faces before me were the same ones I saw the previous day. But conditions influencing student receptivity changed, reconfigured by events at home, on the street, and in crowded hallways. That situation required impromptu changes of plans, “calling audibles.” so to speak. But you can’t win ‘em all, so inevitably, there were times I was dissatisfied with my efforts. I never wanted to confuse intentions with results, so I did a kind of post-game analysis and made revisions.

Because they are deeply consequential, teacher efforts require rigorous self-evaluation. Dealt with daily for approximately 180 days a year, the whole regimen can’t help but become very taxing. Still, if I had it to do over, the classroom would remain my professional home. To play a positive role in nurturing tomorrow’s adults transcends all other considerations including fair financial compensation.

Looking back, I adjusted quickly to how the broader society regards public school teachers. We perform estimable services, but, in the end, we’re taken for granted because we’re so readily available. We are reliably and conveniently there for the public.

Conveniences make life infinitely more livable. We can assume, for example, our supermarket will have in stock what we need. Television sets will function at our command. Cars will start when we turn ignition keys and press down on accelerators. On the rare occasions, though, when these seemingly inviolable truths prove not to be and the world gets out of synch for us, we may rue the fact that we so casually ignored our good fortune when control over things seemed thoroughly predictable. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget one other mammoth assumption: our kids’ classrooms would always be replete with their customary features. Along with desks, seats, and chalkboards, there would be these assorted bipeds called “teachers,” a title little understood and even less appreciated.

What happens when that assumption collides with what could become a new normal? Will it dawn that, perhaps, the public should become more respectful, more genuinely aware of and caring about those facilitators of a more civilized future? In any case, the time has arrived for at least one deletion from the “take for granted” list. If we ignore the significance of what teachers do, it’ll be at our own extreme peril.

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