“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”
― Edith Wharton,
I wrote recently about why teaching is not a sacrifice for me. I believe that several false narratives pervade our cultural understanding of education, and “teacher making a heroic sacrifice” is one of those narratives.
Here’s another problematic practice from non-education folks: the praise. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m uncomfortable with some of the praise teachers get.
A note: I’m not talking about sincere thanks from students and families with whom I have a relationship. That kind of acknowledgment is deeply meaningful to me and to all teachers, and we should all thank people in our lives who have made a difference.
I’m talking more about the general person on the street or the casual acquaintance or the person I barely know at a social event who wants to thank me for doing such a hard job. One of my friends and colleagues (who encouraged me to write this post) says that she frequently receives comments like, “How selfless of you to do such a thankless job. It’s so, so, so hard” and “You must be so patient! I could never do that job.”
Sure, teaching can be hard, and I make no claims to patience. (I am, however, a decent actor.) As I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, I’m not doing this job for the praise. Trust me, there are plenty of days in which no student is praising me or even liking me very much, and I have to continue on my teeth-gritted, merry way, dragging young people to better, smarter, deeper lives whether they want it or not.
Why is praising teachers a problem? Here are a few ways:
- Praising teachers promotes a problematic narrative: the narrative of the caring, sacrificial teacher. While most teachers are caring and deeply interested in the well-being of their students, the reasons for which we entered this profession are multi-faceted and complex. The reasons we continue are perhaps even more so. Teachers need to protect their own health and well-being, but unfortunately too many of us don’t. All kinds of unfair demands on our lives can be justified by the guilt imposed by the statement, “But it’s for the kids!” Please don’t promote martyrdom with praise.
- Praising teachers can become a substitute for civic duty. If you are serious about your gratitude for public servants, then be a conscientious member of the public we are attempting to serve. Educate yourself on the issues surrounding schools in your community, in your state, in the nation. Get involved in the work of schools. Ask what schools in your community need and see if it’s something in your power to provide. Vote.
- Praising teachers deprofessionalizes teachers’ work. Excellent teaching is not solely dependent on personal qualities; nor is it a job done by heroes. Sometimes when someone remarks about how I “really know what I’m doing” in teaching, I will offer the information that I have a Master’s degree in Secondary Education. I had excellent training in pedagogy from knowledgeable professors. Planning a lesson well requires understanding of a variety of complex factors: how individuals learn, how groups learn, which lesson model best fits the content, which assessment is most appropriate, how to differentiate for students who are gifted and talented/limited English proficient/special education/economically disadvantaged, etc. Teaching is a practical, fulfilling, research-grounded, intelligence-requiring, mentally and emotionally demanding career that should be respected, not patronized.
- Praising teachers can strip teachers of a voice. As an English teacher, I spend most of my life in the world of stories. I am deeply conscious of the ways in which the storytellers hold power in a culture. If you praise without listening, you are telling the story, you are controlling the narrative. I find that when someone starts talking to me about teaching, I tend to step behind my emotional wall as I assess his or her openness to really hearing me. I wait to see if my conversation partner will ask me any questions, and then I offer answers with gradually increasing levels of honesty. Let any thanks for teachers be the opening rather than the closing to a conversation.
Please let your conversations with teachers be more than expressions of relief that someone else is doing a difficult but necessary job, more than a salve for the civic conscience, and more than starry-eyed awe at a caring hero. Try instead to ask honest questions about the real work of the classroom and engage in the larger conversation about education in a democratic society.
Please help us change the narrative.
Please help us tell the story.