Teachers are essential workers too
by Gary Kaplan
The end of the year is a traditional time for reflection. This year, the cup of reflection runneth over to the point of tsunami. Even in the delimited field of education, we could go on for volumes. But let’s pick a subject. Let’s focus on teachers.
The impacts of the pandemic on students and parents have received copious coverage. Less attention has been paid to teachers. So it was timely last week when the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on attrition in the teacher corps (Teacher Shortage Worsens Pandemic Woes in Schools, 12/16/20). The lead statistic is that public school employment in November was at its lowest level since 2000, down 8.7% from February. Teachers are quitting, retiring, taking leaves of absence, burning out.
The reasons are understandable. Whiplash from the abrupt shift to remote teaching, which required a complete reinvention of curriculum in a digital medium that few teachers had the training or experience to operate. Frustration of poor student attendance and spotty performance, often due to family and economic factors beyond the knowledge or control of the teacher. Sudden shifts from remote to hybrid to in-person back to remote in response to political and public health pressures. Relentless criticism in the media over issues such as inequitable digital access, parental stress, attention struggles, social and emotional strain. The commentary on these issues has often seemed to lay the blame on schools and, therefore, on the visible agents of the schools: teachers.
Detached reflection realizes that teachers cannot be responsible for these traumas and inequities, but the burden still falls on their shoulders because they are the point of contact between the education establishment and the student. Teachers are the frontline workers of education. They are the first, and often the only, responders.
The quandary is well expressed by a high school teacher whom we have quoted previously:
“This has been a scary and uncertain time for everyone, especially our students. They are figuring out how to learn remotely and we are figuring out how to teach remotely. The emotional toll this is taking on teachers and students is tremendous.”
We have often discussed the central societal role of education as the foundry of norms and values. Aristotle considered education the most important function of the state because it forms the character of the citizen. Before Aristotle, Plato created the heroic figure of Socrates, a teacher. The dialogues are the earliest representation of education in our literature. The Socratic method, the dialogue, is an interaction of teacher and student. Here, in its earliest appearance, education is social in both process and application.
When I look back on my years in schools, it’s the teachers I remember. Miss Banks in fourth grade who taught us to identify birds. Miss Falk in fifth grade who made grammar visible by teaching us to diagram sentences. Miss Day in seventh grade who made us memorize The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, which I recite automatically every time the Old North Church comes into view. Mr. Watkins in high school who made algebra fun and Mr. Erickson who embodied J. Alfred Prufrock. Professor Ellmann in college who guided us through the labyrinth of Joyce, and Dr. Heller who convinced us of Rilke’s sublimity even though we did not read German. It was their conviction, their enthusiasm, their love of the subject and their evangelical devotion to sharing that love that drew us in and made us crave initiation into the mysteries.
We’re in a different moment now. Socrates would not be tolerated in any school today. Even if he put on a shirt and tie and traded his sandals for wingtips, his free form explorations would not align with grade level standards or follow the pacing guide. His students would flounder on formative evaluations and bomb on MCAS. Parents would quickly clamor for his dismissal.
This year, for good reasons, frontline workers and first responders command universal admiration and gratitude. They deserve it. And so do the frontline workers and first responders of education.
Even in our intricately structured pedagogical matrix, learning requires more than mere presentation of material. Students still need guidance, encouragement, hopefully even inspiration. Teachers are still the protagonists of the education drama: their actions drive the plot. The Socratic magic is still potent and still needed. And only teachers can bring it.
Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks
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