War Against Teachers?

There’s been a lot in the news recently about teachers: Some outspoken individual has claimed that teachers have a cushy job and are overpaid for the amount of work that they do, which is essentially just baby-sitting, and many states are calling for cuts in teaching positions to help reconcile budgetary shortfalls. Many of the people and media channels I follow on Facebook and Twitter are a-twitter about all of this: in what ways will this devaluing of education impact culture?

This is nothing new – teachers being underappreciated, greatly misunderstood, and teachers being confused with professors who lead college classes and – the lucky ones at least – may have someone else to do the grading for them so they can concentrate on their research. But, there’s been something in the water that I’ve noticed since leading undergraduate, and I encounter more and more people who tell me, with dead seriousness, that education (particularly higher education) is a complete waste of time. I’ve had students or classmates who say that they dropped out of high school and took their GED because high school was a waste of time, and are coming to college to get the piece of paper that entitles them to a better job. (Note, I’m not saying that all non-traditional adult students are in this category; some legitimately aren’t ready or can’t handle the pressures of college.) What makes school a “waste of time?”

So, then I try to think of stories of teachers. All heroes have some sort of sagely teacher, the Wise Old Wo/Man. This figure, one of the top ten archetypal figures of literature, gives the hero the knowledge and advice s/he needs to successfully complete her/his mission. Obviously, no hero can be successful without some kind of mentor/educator.

The next challenge is to think of stories that involve modern classroom settings – 1 teacher to several students. There are plenty of historical examples of this, from Plato and Charlemagne’s medieval universities, to the Renaissance and beyond. But I’m struggling to come up with a myth other than Harry Potter, so let’s work with that.

There are three types of Potter teachers: the McGonagalls, who are dedicated to student success; the Snapes, who openly play favorites and make education difficult for those they don’t necessarily like; and the Trelawneys, who are quite out there. This covers a fair spectrum of modern teachers (and professors, to be sure). Were these teachers accountable to the American Education System, all of them would have earned their position, because of the importance we place on Teacher’s Certification for primary and secondary schools (graduate level degrees for higher learning). Yet, at the end of HBP, Harry drops out of school, claiming that he has learned all that he can and needs to fulfill his mission to defeat Voldemort. Apparently, to Harry, school has become a complete “waste of time.”

There is something to be said about practical education versus book learning. In regards to defeating Voldemort, yes, Harry had learned all that he would learn from books (assuming that he even read any), and felt that it was time for some practical education. This makes sense in the context of Harry’s adventures. Perhaps this also makes sense in the “real world.” But, with the exception of Snape and, to an extent, Trelawney, Harry doesn’t blame his teachers for dropping out of school. He doesn’t blame them for not giving him the practical education he needs. He makes this decision for himself.

So why is there a recent push to blame teachers for everything that is wrong? Teachers hands are tied by so many different policies and learning objectives, such that the only thing they can be accused of doing “wrong” is following the rules. Perhaps rather than firing teachers, or chopping their salaries, Education Reform should revisit rules and regulations, and untie some parental hands. Or, better yet, maybe it’s time to rewrite the myth that education is an institution, which is such a loaded term, and return to the idea that education is part of the hero’s story?

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