ANYONE CAN TEACH? THAT’S MYTH NO. 1

Burlington County Times January 22, 2001

Thirteen teachers in New Jersey recently received certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a demanding, rigorous procedure which only 50% of the applicants pass. That’s 13 out of over 100,000 certified teachers in the state.

Why don’t more teachers in New Jersey apply for national certification? It’s not only because of the $2,000.00 application fee, or the high-level courses and exacting evaluations. It’s because very few school districts in our state reward the teachers for their accomplishment.

When doing teacher training, I always ask the students what reactions they received from family and peers when they announced that they planned to teach. Their answers vividly demonstrate the ambivalence we have towards teachers:

“My friends think I’m crazy.”

“My father says I’m too smart to teach and why am I wasting my time?”

“My mother’s afraid I’ll be killed.”

“My fiancé says we’ll never be able to afford to have children.”

“My roommate thinks I’m taking all gut courses.”

“My friends ask when I’m going to get a real job.”

“My neighbors are jealous that I get my summers off.”

Their answers show just how prevalent myths about teaching are.

Myth #1: Anyone can teach. This mistaken attitude is what leads to the “warm body” approach to staffing schools: it doesn’t matter if you have none of the traits that define a good teacher – humor, fairness, patience, interpersonal skills, tact, organizational ability, flexibility – because as long as you stay one chapter ahead of the class, you can teach. But if you do not have an innate talent for teaching, combined with the academic background to enable you to write a lesson plan and evaluate your students, you cannot teach effectively.

Myth #2: You’re working with children, so how smart can you be? “Those who can, do; those who can’t teach.” If you were really on the ball, or really smart, or really ambitious, you’d be in private industry. At the very least, you’d be teaching on the university level. But teachers do not take courses in how to design an attractive bulletin board; they need to know psychology, organizational management, computer skills, as well as pedagogic techniques. And they have to keep up with the latest developments in such areas as alternative assessment techniques, brain-based teaching, multicultural sensitivity, multiple intelligences, mainstreaming. And, of course, they need an in-depth knowledge of their subject area.

Myth #3: You’re working part time and earning a full-time salary. Teachers do not work 2 days for only a few months a year. Many arrive at school at least an hour earlier than the students, and stay long after the last bus has left. Then they advise extracurricular clubs, evaluate student work, try to contact parents, attend meetings, and revise lesson plans. They attend workshops and take graduate courses.
In addition, teaching is very “labor intensive.” You can’t just leave your desk and get a cup of coffee or shmooze with your colleagues. You can seldom even go to the bathroom. And you certainly can’t take an extra long lunch hour to go to the bank or the dentist or buy your spouse an anniversary present. Teachers are “on” every minute.

Myth #4: The pay is lousy. No one has ever accused the public of being consistent in its views. At the same time that we resent spending tax payer monies for “part-time work, full-time salaries,” we scorn teachers for earning such low salaries. After all, if they were so smart and effective, they’d be earning big bucks in private industry.

Myth #5: Good teachers become administrators. Along with large salaries, titles determine someone’s worth in our society. “Teacher” isn’t all that impressive a title. “Principal” or “Superintendent” sound a lot better.

But the only way a teacher can be promoted is by leaving teaching. And the characteristics that make one a good teacher are not necessarily the same ones that make one a good administrator. If there’s no job advancement, then you’re in a dead-end job. You may as well be flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant.

Myth #6: Teaching is a great job for women. In the pre-feminist days, I was told, “Go into teaching. It’s a great job while your husband’s finishing school (law or medical school, of course). You can quit when the kids are born and go back after they’re in school.” No one ever explained to me how I was supposed to be at home with after-school milk and cookies for the kids when I’d probably be leaving the school building later than they would.

Myth 7: Teachers can solve society’s problems, We have a long history in this country of asking the schools to solve society’s problems, whether they be forging a new democracy or eradicating racism through
desegregation, “Americanizing” new immigrants in the 1920’s or winning the space race in the 1960’s. When society’s problems aren’t solved, when bigotry and illiteracy and unemployment continue to plague us, we don’t blame the failures on ourselves as a society, but blame the schools instead. And blaming the schools means blaming the teachers.

It is time for us to realize that teachers, as a group, are highly trained, dedicated, and professional. They cannot be expected to right the wrongs of the world single-handedly. Given the tools, given the support, given the respect they deserve, they can make a difference. But it is time for us to help them.

1 Comment

  1. John Bohnert said,

    It’s really great to see someone stick up for teachers. Thanks. I taught fourth and fifth grades in public schools for twenty-seven years.

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