Attitudes toward teaching

Is there a big difference between public attitude towards teachers in the US and Canada?

When people find out that I am a teacher I NEVER (and I am not a wanton all caps user) am made to feel like I have settled on teaching for lack of ability to do otherwise. Did I mention NEVER?

On the contrary, people usually respond with cools and wows and I have great respect for you, it must be hard, how do you do it? They then follow with talk of their memories of school, the teacher who they’ll never forget, the cafeteria food – whatever. The point is that my job conjures up memory, stories – of hard times and good. The stuff that life is made of.

Ken Dryden talks about our personal Board of Governors and who we would like on it. He reminds us that while few of us could name specific accountants or salespeople for it we could all think of teachers we’d like to sit on it.

So I have a hard time understanding the article linked to by @AngelaMaiers today, called Schools Need Teachers Like Me. I Just Can’t Stay by Sarah Fine in The Washington Post, Sunday, August 9, 2009.

Or at least parts of it.

I can definitely understand teacher burn out. When you love teaching sometimes it’s hard to find the off switch. There’s always one more thing to do, to plan, to correct, to prepare, to present, to remind ourselves of, to talk to a student/colleague/parent/volunteer about. And that’s during the regular school year, figure in report card season and the things to do possibilities multiply exponentially.

I can definitely understand that feeling of loss when you just can’t get to that one (or more) kid. No matter what you try, s/he will still give you the cold shoulder, still skip class, still (seemingly) not care about learning. Then I remember that this is learned behaviour. That the child must have experienced so much loss of her own that she can’t let anyone else in. And my feeling of loss grows.

I can definitely understand the frustration of massive failure, when a large chunk of your group fails. Within a long history of failure, a few months with a new teacher will rarely be able to make the monumental difference needed to turn 30s to 70s – no matter how much we want it. Though it is sometimes possible with the proper structure and trust.

Working towards that structure is what keeps me sane.

But I don’t understand the lack of social recognition Sarah Fine writes about in fully one half of her article. Or, rather, the dismal recognition she describes it as having. She writes that teaching is considered as being for the unambitious and untalented, that people think it is a second class profession.

Do I live in a bubble? Are people coddling me with cools and wows and then sneering once I leave the room – can you believe she’s a teacher? How gauche!

I don’t think so. The reactions I get are honest and from the heart. People don’t share stories through whimsical smiles about things they think are second rate and undervalued.

She does have it right though. Teaching is hard work, it is life work. I wouldn’t describe it as grueling and the fact that she does makes me think that Sarah Fine was just not meant to teach. My gut reaction? This article was an attempt at justifying that.

Then I read the comments and there were quite a number that supported her views. As well as a number who felt like me, if you aren’t meant to teach don’t teach.

But I recognize that I write this from a Canadian perspective. Which begs me to ask – are Canadian teachers more valued than our American colleagues? What is different here?

3am sleepless update: Apparently Michael Doyle tried to reply to this post but he wasn’t able to post the comment. Lucky for us it made it to his own blog. Go read his take on the matter – as always, it points to truth for me. —> On Why Sarah Fine Left Teaching


  • TracyRosen says:

    Claus, sorry for the delay in response. Have a sick dog at home and he is taking a lot of my focus lately.

    There are differences between Canada and the US…I think. My only experience with American schools was 36 years ago as a Kindergarten student in PS 183 in New York. It seemed like a nice school, though I remember getting in trouble for coming to school with my hands dirty one day when really they got dirty from the charcoal my teacher had given me to colour with when my mother dropped me off early for school. I thought that was grossly unfair. Since that was my only experience, I can't really write about the differences with any authority.

    With that proviso :), I would say that the main big difference is that there are fewer people and fewer big cities in Canada. However, the big cities that do exist house schools like Coronation Schoolthat has a population of children with something like 200 different mother tongues, the minority English. There are students who don't come to school in the winter because they don't have adequate clothing and footwear. They come from poor families and have seen things children should never see. They do wonderful things at Coronation School.

    Or there are schools like James Lyng high school, with a dropout rate of over 65% in 2007. James Lyng has a history of working with the community to find solutions for their students and they continue to do so, such as with Youth Fusion, a recent parternership with Concordia University. Even so, why these numbers?

    Kids (not all, but most) at both of these schools (and others like them in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal) live in poverty, with the reality of gangs, drug habits, early pregnancies, and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Very often the requirement to learn French and pass difficult exams in the language in order to graduate is too much. In particular at Coronation school, they are largely the children of immigrants who have somehow managed to gain eligibility for education in English. That usually happens as a result of extreme language-based learning disabilities, though sometimes because a relative was schooled in English in Quebec and this opened doorways for them.

    These are tiny capsules, I know, the point is that there is poverty. Apparently there are some horror story schools in the French sector, where there is some extreme poverty though I don't know of any first hand. There are language issues as well (at least in Quebec). I know that in Quebec most immigrants who attended university in their home countries aren't being recognized as university graduates.

    Another difference may have to do with the way each country organizes education on a political level. We would never have a national education policy like NCLB. Education is strictly up to the provinces. So there is no national debate on education, though the provincial debates (again, at least in Quebec) can get pretty heated with teacher strikes, parents fighting over reform, an education minister who, willy-nilly (it seems) changes reporting policy in relation to the education reform that is now entering it's 11th year.

    Oh, and I won't even go into the issues with aboriginal schooling. That is a crime we need to be embarrassed about. Residential schools are long gone but systemic anti-Native schooling still abounds.

    So, a long story to say what I originally wrote – we are a much smaller (population-wise) country than the US. Our educational system is not as a big a machine as it is over there. The bigger, more complex the machine, the more parts there are to potentially go wrong.

  • Claus says:

    I know a high school teacher with an Ivy League Ph.D. who has heard the “dime a dozen” comment several times. When he decided to become a high school teacher–mid-way through his Ph.D–other doctoral candidates counseled him to keep his desires secret, lest he lose the respect of his colleagues and teachers. He also had people in the university administration support his decision to move to K-12, so it's a decidedly mixed bag. He loves what he does, so he can pretty easily deflect negative comments. That said, he works in a school serving mostly wealthy students who come to school with all sorts of advantages.

    I'm speculating here, but I sense that there is a big difference between Canada and the United States on this score. Canada ranks among the highest-performing nations in international assessments. It has smaller income disparities. Immigrants to the country often hold BA's. I suspect the education policy debates in the U.S. are more heated than they are in Canada, and this fact adds to the challenges of teaching in high-poverty schools.

    Am I right about differences between Canada and the US?

  • TracyRosen says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, Tracy. You can't tell, but I do have tears in my eyes as I read it. That comes from recognizing someone else who has found what they are meant to be doing.

  • tracymiller says:

    I was so in love with the literature I read in high school. Often, I had the book done in one night and couldn't wait to have discussion in class. In 10th grade each student in our class was allowed to read a book of their choosing and pick from a menu of activities. I chose J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye. My mother freaked out because she had to sign a permission slip allowing me to read it. There were some “bad words” which were totally necessary to reveal the feelings of the main character. I had always been allowed to read anything, and she thought getting permission to read was the dumbest thing she'd ever heard of.

    The project I chose was to present what the book was about to the class. I prepared an oral presentation filled with enthusiasm and reasons why each and every young person should read this book. This was in the 70's, so there was no power point or other technology used. I might have brought a catcher's mitt.

    I stood at the podium usually used by the teacher. So excited! I looked out over a small class of teens who couldn't have cared less about what I was about to say or what I said. Some were in the back talking. Girls were doing their hair and nails. Others were sleeping. I'm sure that if we'd had cell phones, they would have been texting. The only person who made eye contact with me was a guy who wanted to date me. I think the teacher might have been paying attention.

    As though it were yesterday, not 30+ years ago, I remember thinking,”If I were a teacher, I could spread my excitement and love of literature. I would find some way to light a fire in students so they felt connected to a larger world and thought about bigger ideas than what to wear and did their hair look good.” Although I felt sorry for my teacher, I knew I had to be a teacher.

    When I became a senior, people started asking me what I wanted to be. My senior English teacher was disappointed that someone with gifts like mine would enter his profession. My mother said, “Teachers are a dime a dozen.”

    I was trained to be 7-12 grade language arts teacher. Except subbing and summer school, I have never taught in that area. For the past ten years of 20+ years of teaching, I've been teaching ESL. I have struggled with how we were expected to teach. I have listened to colleagues complain about how students are not motivated. It seemed there was a connection, yet I couldn't articulate it.. Nothing was authentic. Week by week we went through various texts to cover material. I was asked to drill students to prepare them for the ever more important tests. I just kept thinking, “There has to be a better way.” Lucky for me my district has brought Angela in many times over the past few years so that I could learn that better way.

    I've never had a lack of respect from my parents or students, because when my students are with me, I teach and stumble and learn with them. I challenge them, yet meet their unique needs with the support that will help them succeed and become independent learners. I set the bar high.

    I get mixed reactions from the public. Some have issues with me because of the population I teach. Others flat out say, “You're not paid enough.” Either way, every day that I work with students or prepare for students or find something that I hope is as meaningful to them as it was to me, I know that I have chosen wisely. Yes, I would feel more valued, appreciated and respected if I were paid more. The personal sacrifices I and my family make would be less costly.

    But, my gifts would not be better utilized in another profession. And a really good teacher is priceless.

  • Enjoyed your perspective on the Fine article. I had been a little 'down' at all the press that article had been receiving. I feel that there are a lot of positive things going on with, for, and about American teachers who are teachers for life. As a 30 year veteran teacher, I have taught in 4 different schools in 2 different states and have never felt that I was disrespected or undervalued for being a teacher. (Underpaid, yes…) Our pay checks do come in different forms – my first graders 'cracking the code', kids coming back to visit after years, parents in the grocery saying that their child still misses being in your class after all these years, even the thrill of your own continuous learning – all just a few of the valid reasons to continue to be in the most exciting profession. If someone is not finding what Don Graves calls “The Energy to Teach”, they are most likely not truly called to be life-long educators.
    I can still see (although in fewer numbers) in our student interns those young people that are called to be life-long teachers. It is exciting to be able to spot them and talk to them about their potential in leading the future of teachers. Interesting conversation as we prepare to get back to school in the next few days!

  • TracyRosen says:

    Michael – I'm glad you made it! I'm repeating myself from the comment I left on your blog –> Yes, teaching matters. On your blog I wrote that it matters more than the social recognition some crave, but to be honest I feel total socially recognized. The only way that I can conceive understanding where Sarah Fine is coming from is by thinking that whatever she's looking for, it isn't teaching.

    I love what cvs brown teacher commented on your post:

    …I am more convinced than ever that a good teacher must be spiritually connected to the profession – that more important than pay, social recognition or “status” among ambitious peers must be an underlying belief that enhancing the lives of young people around you (esp. those from more challenged circumstance) is a big part of what your life must be…

    of what our lives must be.

  • mdoyle says:

    I've done both teaching and medicine–medicine pays ridiculously well for some, and here in the States that may be enough to give a profession gravitas, esteem, whatever you want to call it.

    Docs take a fair amount of jovial abuse here, as do lawyers. Any profession does–if you “profess,” expect to be challenged, especially by your peers.

    Teaching is hard work–so are a lot (I'd daresay most) jobs, professions, whatever you want to call work. I work with a lot of people who left other fields–professional chemists, business folks, a photographer, a lawyer–and while we're aware that a lot of folks see teachers as those that can't do, we're also aware that, despite the tremendous amount of work required, it's not harder than the professions we left.

    So why does anyone teach here in the States? You'll get a lot of answers–love of students, time off, good benefits–but for those of us who happily stay, it's because we believe teaching matters. The financial compensation is reasonable if not spectacular, but that's not why we teach.

  • TracyRosen says:

    I've also worked in independent schools and know where you are coming from. Many people are shocked when they hear that, more often than not, private/independent school teachers make even less than public school teachers.

    I think like you, Marcy – there must be more to Sarah's story for her to leave teaching than what she reported. Unless teaching, unlike what she reports, is not what she was meant to be doing with her life. Earlier I tweeted to Angela that while there may be a desire to teach it doesn't always mean that the passion is there. It's that passion that keeps us teaching.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation. As always, an interesting perspective!

  • Marcy Webb says:

    I read your and Angela's comments, and the article to which you linked. While I can relate to and empathize with some of what Sarah describes, I have only encountered a lack of respect from two individuals re: my choice to become a teacher, and they were Black men, interestingly enough. I teach at an independent school, where the days feels even longer, employment is often tentative due to the fact that many such schools are largely tuition-driven and respond to market forces, where salary is less than neighboring public schools ND where intellectual integrity is sometimes thrown under the bus in favor of catering to the often-frivolous whims of wealthy, entitled and demanding parents. That all being said, I still feel a real sense of joy and gratification for the students and for the work I do, and for the support I receive from family, friends, students, parents, and the administration.

    I would need to hear more re: Sarah's story to get a better understanding re: her thoughts, feelings and perspectives. However, on its' face, perhaps she needs to step away for a period of time, just as I did. It took me a second career and grad. school – a severn-year hiatus – to determine that I wanted to return to the classroom. Like Sarah, I wanted others to tell me how important my work was and how worthy a human being I was for doing it. But, my Dear Father told me that one has to be able to give herself props, becaue they may not come from elsewhere. Perhaps Sarah needs to learn this lesson, too.

  • Tracy says:

    Strange. I guess my site started to bork when I responded to this because I know that I did.

    What did I say? :)

    This IS a good conversation to have. The opinions of others obviously do matter as that was the main reason Fine gave for leaving teaching in her article. I’m sure that the positive attitude I have experienced towards teachers/teaching in general has helped in keeping my passions high.

    The main reason I hear for people not going into teaching in Quebec has to do with the length of the training – mandatory 4-year BEd to teach with any kind of permanency in Quebec, regardless of previous degrees. I once knew a tutor with a Masters in the teaching of Mathematics who was not allowed to teach in Quebec. She could not afford to go back to school full time for 4 years so she left Quebec.

    Interestingly, teaching is often cited as one of the top recession-proof jobs. Perhaps this will play a factor in changing public opinion and attitude towards it.

  • Many things Sara discussed hit home. I started my career in the medical profession, and decided to change my major to elementary education my senior year in college. As I announced my decision to leave medicine and pursue a career in education, I was challenged with conversations of “stepping down” or “falling short” of my potential. There was a universal reaction from family members, friends, and strangers that teaching was less prestigious, notable, and accomplished. If I had listened to the crowd and not my heart, I am quite sure that I would be in different job today.

    This brings up an interesting discussion that we do not often address- How does the community (local, national, global, familial,…) position the work we do? And, does their opinion of “us” matter? Does it sway the decision of new members entering the field?

    I think there is some interesting dialogue to be had here.
    .-= Angela Maiers´s last blog ..Lesson Planning Workshop – Part 1 =-.

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