“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”
― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
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.
I struggle to find more of a response because, well, yes. Just yes.
You’ve put words to some of the heart pangs I’ve been feeling but couldn’t exactly identify. The one that resonates most (they all do, but one just keeps ringing in my ear) is about professionalism. I STILL (6+ years later) get heated about a comment from a well-meaning acquaintance who asked over dinner, “How’s that teaching ‘gig’ going?”
I had left a successful, high-profile public relations job to go into the classroom – not an easy or well-paved transition, and the term “gig” stung like fire. Teaching is not a hobby. It is not a whim. I spent months doing my PR job, traveling both domestically and internationally and still doing all the work to become certified as a classroom teacher. I worked my tail off to EARN the credentials to teach in the classroom. I didn’t get one certification, but instead got three to make myself more marketable. I planned for this career and worked as hard at getting a job as I have at doing my job. Every sub assignment was a chance to “interview” for a full-time position. And it paid off. Some of the administrators I subbed for those many years ago still remember my work ethic and attention to responsibility when I was a sub and call on me for projects that are in my wheelhouse.
I probably work harder as a teacher than I ever did in any other field I’ve practiced in. And everything I did on the run up to teaching folds together to make me a better teacher: multi-tasking, dealing with multiple stakeholders, understanding where others need to be managed and where they need to learn to make their own mistakes, prioritizing, communicating with diplomacy, adhering to high standards, understanding the immediate and long-term goals, working well with others who may or may not have the same priorities, and on and on and on.
Yes, there are 2.5 months without students in the summer, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t working. The last two years I have accrued over 100 hours of professional development, by choice. In addition to sitting in the training/workshops, those hours include additional research, homework and often presentations to peers. Additionally, we meet with our teammates to look at like-planning to gear up for the coming year. We reflect on what went well the year before and how to incorporate new learning into the coming year.
Then there’s the school year. I often get to work between 7-7:30am and don’t get home until after 5pm, and then work another 3-4 hours grading papers or preparing for lessons the next day. So much more than 35-40 hrs a week.
It IS a profession. It takes professionals to do it. It takes training and education and constant reflection/revision to improve and meet not only the inherent demands of teaching and reaching youth, but also to answer to the ever-changing standards and demands imposed by district, state and federal mandates.
So, back to my original comment: Yes.
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Wow–I love this testimony. Thank you for your story, friend.
This is such a thoughtful post. The expression of appreciation for teachers without a relational context, at best, feels empty like idle chatter. At worst, it’s another example of sneaking transactional, market-economy language (& assumptions) into a practice that has nothing to do with the values of business culture. And it’s not an example of people acknowledging how hard the work is because hard work is demanded of all of us no matter the profession. There’s another assumption going on here: “If it isn’t making dollars, then it isn’t making sense, so how noble of you to teach!” I reject the gesture of privileging market-economy values above all other spheres of human social existence, but this is what’s at work with such “empty” compliments. Like you said, real appreciation for education in our culture should be expressed through action, not words. If one truly thinks it’s a noble practice (and it is, but not for economic reasons…), then get involved and contribute towards social changes to make education better for everyone.
Thanks for sharing your insights!
You’re welcome! I agree with your points about how we privilege market economy values and commodify every experience. So many people don’t acknowledge that world view.