Do Liberals and Elites Hate Teachers?

Corey Robin thinks so , and explains liberal disdain towards the Chicago strike as a spill-over of elite belief that teachers are socioeconomic losers doing a job that anyone could do.

I think he’s on to something, though in many ways I think it’s better as a general sociology and social history of sentiment towards teachers and education and a little dodgier as a rejoinder to specific critics. I also think there is maybe a little more complexity and contradiction in the attitude towards teachers, though, even in elite communities.

Like Corey Robin, I went to public schools in upper middle-class communities, had great relationships with most of my teachers, felt enormous affection for the education I received, and so on. On the other hand, I don’t have good feelings about the totality of “school”, particularly before high school, because (like more than a few academics) I also recall being bullied with great frequency, in no small measure because I did like school and education and a vocal and aggressive subset of other students did not.

So something is going on even while we’re being schooled that draws from both parents and the wider culture, but I also think has its own dynamic among students. Teachers, mostly unfairly, often become a holder for all of that wider, more diffuse antagonism towards the experience of education. And we should not be too quick to write that antagonism off as a conservative or elite disdain: there’s a long, sound history of progressive critiques directed at the content, organization and experience of mass education in the United States. Not to mention at least some reason to soberly think about the damage that even a few bad teachers or bad educational trends can inflict on students, and how much the memory of such an experience can shape a life–Robin dissolves “bad teaching” into the acid bath of “bad sociality”, but if you’re going to credit how distinctively powerful good or competent teaching is, and how grateful we should be for it, you can’t just wave off how disproportionately serious bad teaching or advising can be.

I also think Robin is underestimating the variance in how different students feel treated even by great, talented, inspiring teachers. The teacher who inspired or excited someone like myself could be more like the teacher who denigrated or discouraged other students. Not necessarily because the teacher meant to do that (though some did) but because of the necessary involvement of teachers in the workings of meritocratic sorting. You can’t give credit to some of Christopher Hayes’ unsettling analysis of meritocratic privilege on one hand without seeing how teachers disrupt the reproduction of privilege (a modestly successful professional cannot simply will a child through the system, no matter how hard they try) and yet also are a key part of the reproduction of privilege on the other. In this sense, teachers good and bad can’t win for losing: they will end up blamed either way for crises in the reproduction and/or transformation of social hierarchies, because they really are involved in the making of the social order. Not involved in everything and anything, as all the overwrought hysterics who continuously scream about the “failure” of American schools like to believe, but neither is it all Mr. Chips and Jaime Escalante either–defending both the great teachers we’ve each had as individuals and the vital contributions of teachers in general doesn’t require sanctifying them as more altruistic than everyone else, or forgetting the structural and contingent problems that they both are victims of and sometimes movers within.

What ultimately has made the criticism of the Chicago strike so odd and irritating is that the critics are so dismissive and arrogant about the chief sticking points in the negotiations, which aren’t really about money. There’s a seeming inability to understand why poorly designed evaluation systems, particularly those that are tied to test results, threaten the very best and most inspiring teachers as much as anyone. What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers. You can’t be in favor of clumsy or cookie-cutter evaluations and still claim to be primarily concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools. What might be happening here is less the rage of privileged elites against anyone they deem to be beneath them, and more the rage of upper middle-class professionals who have found their own lives increasingly hemmed in by forms of deprofessionalizing oversight and dumb operant-conditioning gimmickry sold to organizations by snake-oil consultancies. The trick in the next decade is going to be: can we get the river to flow the other direction? Rather than give in to every person who insists that whatever outrages and inefficiencies of 21st Century Taylorism have been inflicted on them must be inflicted on everyone else, we should be trying to claw back generative, productive forms of dignity and autonomy to the working lives of every person.

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11 Responses to Do Liberals and Elites Hate Teachers?

  1. Laura says:

    Sigh. It’s true. I know I avoided K-12 for years because I looked down on the profession itself. I had wonderful teachers. My own mother was a teacher. So I struggled my way into teaching/working at the college level, only to find out that there wasn’t anything special about it, and that it involved just as much work, and incurred just as much ridicule from folks as teaching at the secondary level.

    Many of my frustrations have been directed at systemic issues, many of which create an environment where not so good teachers remain in the classroom without any further training and support to get better. Class sizes are often too large for teachers to realize and remedy problematic student performance. Most schools, even private ones, are driven not by research on learning but by some external motivation: perceived college admissions standards, tests, competition with other schools. That can lead to poorly structured curriculum, lack of support for students who fall outside what is normal, and bad teaching practices.

    Good teaching is not easy under the best of conditions. Most schools don’t have the best of conditions. They don’t even come close. Unions are one way of helping to establish better conditions, not just for teachers but for students. When your teachers are evaluated properly, they can get better. When their pay is raised, the school can attract better teachers, perhaps with more education or more experience. When their working conditions are good, they can be in a good frame of mind to teach.

  2. Hestal says:

    I agree with Laura’s comments, and I should add that some of my friends agree as well. I taught in high school a few years before I left because of low pay, but several of my friends taught until they retired. During their careers many so-called “reforms” were made to the system and my friends would tell me, in real time, what was wrong with them. Diane Ravitch, who has made a career working as an education historian and in George H. W. Bush’s education department. She published a book a couple of years ago called, “The death and life of the great American school system.” In it she admits that the reforms she witnessed, and helped develop in some cases, have all been failures. Her complaints are almost verbatim as those my friends expressed over their long careers. When I retired in 1995, I considered returning to high school math teaching and I took a six-week assignment in one of the Plano, Texas high schools. The chairman of the math department was taking a medical leave of absence. I was shocked by what I saw. I won’t go into it here, but the children were being shortchanged in a big way.

    In any case, my friends and I think that it is not too hard to put things right. We weren’t too far off during the middle of the last century, so we can return to that approach. Things would be improved if we left a lot of the student’s education up to him, and if we arranged things so that students helped each other. These goals can be realized by giving students age 13 through 25 important and definite duties to perform that involve helping us govern.

    In my working life I was a consumer of the school system product. It was just fine. The evaluation systems we use are the problem, not the kids.

  3. Withywindle says:

    Teaching undergrads who wanted to be teachers, and realizing the cohort was neither very bright nor very prepared, distinctly lowered my estimation of the profession. I may not be the only one.

  4. Laura says:

    Withy, I had that experience as well, but as a K-12 teacher now, what I see is that the less bright ones don’t last. Whether they do harm in the first year or two that they’re on the job is unknown, but the profession itself mostly manages to weed out the truly awful–mostly. There are places where that’s not true.

  5. lemmy caution says:

    I hate the anti teacher union stuff from liberals. Paradoxically, I think it stems from a broken record trust that education is the answer to poverty, inequality and racism. Somehow. Our education system is about as good as it is going to be. If liberals want to deal with poverty, inequality and racism they need to bite the bullet and deal with poverty, inequality and racism.

  6. Julian Long says:

    Tim, I think your last paragraph gets it exactly right.

  7. CarlD says:

    “What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers.”

    Just to contribute to the points already made – because education is widely expected to fix poverty, inequality and racism, and since structurally it just can’t, after decades of ‘failure’ there’s all kinds of cya built into the dynamics. So it has become dramatically more important to intercept disconfirmingly bad teaching/outcomes than to enable good ones, which are doomed to come up short of unrealistic expectations anyway. And this is what lockstep assessment systems do. They clean out the bottom at the expense of the top.

  8. Barry says:

    CarlD, that’s if the proposed systems work, and AFAIK they don’t (both theoretically, and because they’re implemented by a neoliberal movement whose first goals are to break teachers’ unions and then to loot public education).

    Withywindle: “Teaching undergrads who wanted to be teachers, and realizing the cohort was neither very bright nor very prepared, distinctly lowered my estimation of the profession. I may not be the only one.”

    So if we cut pay, cut benefits, make the jobs much more insecure, eliminate the very idea of an actual career, we will get a group which is:

    a) Better.
    b) Worse.

  9. Barry says:

    BTW, one of the special pieces of hypocrisy being called out is the sheer gall of pundits demanding more ‘accountability’ from teachers. People who’d almost all have been sacked years ago if being right were an actual job requirement.

    Note that one could make the argument that pleasing the Powers that Be is the actual job requirement, in which case pundits fall under the heading of frauds and liars, in which case it’s still amazing to see them call for ‘accountability’.

  10. Withywindle says:

    Barry: If I don’t think the cohort of teachers is capable of delivering value of more than X, then I don’t think that lowering their salary from (X + n), where n = parasitic rent, to X, will lower the outcomes.

    This is, of course, an interesting inversion of the debate on the effects of increasing marginal tax rates on the productivity of entrepeneurs, millionaires, etc. (E.g., I take the left to be more sympathetic to the financial incentives of pay for teachers than for millionaires, and that the right reverses those sympathies.) I would say, however, that reducing the parasitic rent of teachers’ unions is more analogous to eliminating crony-capitalism tax-loopholes for the politically well-connected–and favor reducing both.

  11. Dr. John David Leaver says:

    I like the emphasis on education being seen by liberals as a fix to societal problems. I’m a self-professed liberal, but failures to reform society in all kinds of inclusive ways should not have us dump on teachers as the source of that failure, which is in fact multi-faceted. I’m not sure many liberals have moved on from Johnson’s stymied Great Society, where governmental institutions (teachers still had respect back then) were expected to solve problems. The issue, it seems to me, is the lack of any other mildly progressive institutions in US society that might address problems we can all identify.

    Secondary education is, as Tim says, mostly about social reproduction; but even there it often fails in public schools. This is because so many schools are so disruptive of learning processes needed for individuals to do even as well as their parents once did. Conservatives, as so often they do, hold that kids are disrespectful, disruptive, and apathetic and they appear to believe that in some mysterious way that lets them, if not society, off the hook. As in so many Conservative mantras, therefore, students (often from so-called minority backgrounds) deserve the — what in Britain are called — bog-standard educations they receive. But kids are . . . well obviously . . . kids. It has to be the adults’ fault it we cannot organize schools that actually educate.

    I work in a blue-collar community in a High School that has survived No Child Left behind (about 70% so-called ‘minority’), because Georgia came up with its own stick to beat its schools (compatible with ‘Race to the Top’). What has made a difference is a new principal who is strong on discipline. The kids come in and they want to do as little as possible. This applies to a minority of teachers too. The lazier students have to be forced to learn in ways that they will eventually realize benefit them. They are still under paternalistic guidance (or should be somewhere) so this is possible. In a large number of cases, however, this approach means winning over a student’s parent(s).

    Where that isn’t possible, I feel relieved of a lot of responsibility. When one factors that reality into the picture, it is clear that we are at a stage where teachers have to be the social workers as well as instructors that some naive liberals always thought they could so easily be. That reality is tough, and accounts for a lot of the unimaginative book-work condemned so roundly by those who do not seem to realize education at this level is chiefly about human relationships and minimum competency tests, and not only about insights and excellence (parts of many elitist mantras).

    But with a doctorate I am well-paid. About the equivalent of an associate Professor of history in a respectable state-institution. I wouldn’t want to do my job as a recent graduate from any of the often poor teacher preparation programs I have a passing acquaintance with, however. Now that’s where George Bernard Shaw’s rebuke really stings: ‘those who can’t teach, teach teachers’.

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