Teachers Are Intellectuals, Not Missionaries

By Amanda Ripley, Washingtonian, February 2016

Teaching is seen as a moral, not intellectual, calling. It’s time to evolve from loving teachers to admiring them.

When Lisette Partelow embarked on a new career in 2012, she had all the props of an elite Washington professional: an Ivy League degree, management responsibility, challenging work, and a paycheck that placed her—in her first year on the job—in the top 25% of US salaries. Yet when she told people about her work, the response was very different than the one that awaited her attorney husband. “The reaction was ‘Oh, that’s cute,’” she remembers. “‘You must be sweet. But kind of dull.’”

Partelow, as it happens, was a teacher. And our standard narrative about teachers has long held that they’re underpaid and underappreciated—selfless, perhaps, but not exactly aspiring masters of the universe….

Many people still talk about teachers as if they volunteer in a soup kitchen—as if the hardest part is just showing up….

Hope Harrod, DC’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, [says] “When I tell people I’m a teacher, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh—that’s God’s work. Thank you.’”… The implications wear on her. “What they’re basically saying is ‘Thank you for doing that job so that I don’t have to.’”…

Harrod says, “They’re missing that I’m not actually sacrificing to do this. I’m working extremely hard because I believe in this intellectual journey—for my students and also for me. It’s deeply engaging.”

By “intellectual journey,” Harrod means the workplace questions that teachers grapple with daily: Why is Juan insisting that the answer is 15.5 and not 18? What’s happening in his head that isn’t happening in Scarlette’s head? How can she give him the tools to take apart his own process and rebuild it, piece by piece? For teachers, these challenges are as fulfilling as designing a two-story foyer might be for an architect or arranging a complex merger might be for a corporate lawyer….

People [who] don’t understand the intellectual journey…routinely ask what Harrod plans to do next: “Are you going to be a principal? What is the plan?” She…wishes they understood that her work already challenges her in every way, even after 14 years. Do people ask a pediatrician why she isn’t gunning to become hospital chief? “The underlying implication is ‘You’re not working to your potential.’ And I am.”…

As more people see teaching as prestigious, other magical changes follow: Parents begin to trust teachers a little more. Taxpayers start to believe their money is well spent. Politicians step aside so teachers can shape what’s taught and how. Most important, kids notice, too. When they hear stories about how hard it is to become a teacher and see the respect with which teachers are treated, students start to [see] that when adults say education is important, they might actually mean it….

It’s time to evolve from loving teachers to admiring them. There is a difference.

The first year my son attended a DC public school, I received an e-mail from other parents asking for contributions toward a holiday gift for the teacher…. Weeks later, I got another message asking for donations for a stroller, because the teacher was expecting a baby. Several months later, I received a third e-mail—this time requesting end-of-year gift donations for the same teacher.

Criticizing [such generosity] felt churlish. So I paid up. But…a wad of cash isn’t the highest praise for a professional. It’s not the way we show reverence for doctors and engineers. It feels more like a tip—a way to thank teachers for putting up with their sad-sack jobs….

If more parents understood what serious teaching looked like, what would they do instead? Maybe, at parties, they’d talk to teachers about their craft. They might ask to sit in on classes instead of just coming to concerts and games. And if they understood what their children would miss, they might not want them to be late for school.

Changing the reputation of a profession takes time. “In the United States, we’ve conceived of teaching as primarily a moral calling, not an intellectual one, for two centuries,” says Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession…. There’s no way for a modern society to educate all kids to high levels without also cultivating a reverence for teaching….

At [the next awards program for outstanding teachers], let it be the one where no one apologizes to teachers for the pathetic salaries they no longer earn. Let it be the year that the mayor and TV personalities feel just a touch nervous onstage, staring out at the audience, suddenly aware that they’re not the smartest people in the room.

Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, is author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way.


See also in ClassWise: “5 Ways Education Will Change by 2020”

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