In a recent posting on Good Education, Jose Vilson lamented how there aren’t any celebrity K-12 teachers who can “speak to the collective conscience of the educational experience,” as if this was somehow a prerequisite for teachers to gain the autonomy, status and respect they deserve.
This is a completely absurd notion with some pretty unfortunate implications. Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck and Jamie Oliver may have increased the number of people wanting to cook good food at home, but they have done nothing to elevate the status or wages of the hash slingers and burger flippers who do the majority of restaurant cooking. If anything, the glorification of celebrity chefs contributes to the misperception that good restaurants are the product of a single talented artisan, obscuring the contributions of the prep cooks, servers, buyers and dishwashers. Teaching, like cooking, is a social endeavor. Individual teacher skill depends on interactions with colleagues, families, mentors, while the quality of a school improve more when there is collaboration and support between teachers than on the existence of one or two excellent teachers working in isolation.
In order to gain celebrity K-12 teacher status, one must go so far over and beyond the basic responsibilities (and sanity) required for the job that it makes the rest of us look like shirkers in comparison. Consider Jaime Escalante (from Stand and Deliver fame), who worked late into the evenings and on weekends and summers (usually without compensation), who gave himself a coronary as a result of all the extra stress and toil. Is this the bar we want the public to expect from the rest of us? And even with all his crazy extra work, Escalante’s successes have been greatly exaggerated. His story was, like those of most folk heroes, a hagiographic blend of legend, myth, and cover up.
I do empathize with Vilson’s sentiments. It is unpleasant to work so hard at something, to put one’s heart and soul into it, and be rewarded by politicians, pundits and so-called reformists with accusations of being lazy, greedy or inadequate. Our status, compensation and autonomy do seem to be declining, but that is only because they actually are declining—a direct result of repeated attacks by the capitalist class, which correctly recognized that they could get exactly what they needed from public education (compliant, passive employees) at a fraction of the cost by slashing funding, thus reducing the amount of tax dollars sucked from their thin wallets to pay for educating other people’s children. They realized that the more they deskilled the teaching profession (e.g., increased testing, online education, scripted curriculum), the weaker our position would be in demanding decent wages and benefits. They understood that the more they attacked, the more defensive we would become and the less able we would be to advocate for things like academic freedom and autonomy, smaller class sizes, or curricula that challenges existing socioeconomic relations.
If teachers want greater respect, status, autonomy and remuneration, they will get it by demanding it as a class, not by relying on a few martyrs who are willing to sacrifice their personal lives and work 80-hour weeks in order to be noticed. They can do this by collectively refusing to work until politicians back off with all their anti-teacher, anti-child “reforms;” until they fund education sufficiently to so that ample numbers of nurses, counselors, librarians and teachers can be hired and paid generously; and until they give the teachers the authority to make the important decisions and run the school themselves.
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