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Public School Teachers And Their PR Problem

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


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Public school teachers have a public relations problem that has only gotten worse in recent years.

In 1903 George Bernard Shaw published Maxims for Revolutionists and used the maxim, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

This phrase was again used in 1977 by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, although he added that: “Those that cannot teach, teach gym."

In other words, the PR problem has deep roots. But nowadays it seems like everyone (politicians, school boards, the person on the Stairmaster at the gym) is blaming society’s ills on the public school teacher.

Take the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Enacted in January 2002 under the guidance of President George W. Bush, it was passed to ensure that “By 2013-14 all students will reach high standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading/language arts and mathematics.”

It’s a nice goal. In a perfect world, it would even be attainable. But when it didn’t exactly come to pass, it became the fault of the teachers.

Then there are test scores. Politicians everywhere have been trying to blame public school teachers for our supposedly low test scores.

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie has spent the last few years campaigning on a platform of blaming teachers.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker put every effort into breaking teacher unions.

It’s everywhere.

Here’s the real story, though. 

The real predictor of student success

The No. 1 predictor of a student’s success in school is not the teacher. It is not the school. To some degree it isn’t even the parents.

It is whether or not that student lives in poverty.

This is an accepted fact but it gets no air time. It’s not as sexy for a politician to talk about poverty because that might be the politician’s fault.

It is much easier to have a sound bite about America’s educational malaise being the fault of public educators.

Why can’t Johnny read? It’s because his teacher is some deviant who only has his job because the teacher’s union won’t let the district fire him.

Like many issues, once education becomes politicized, all facts are lost and rhetoric escalates. There is one network saying one thing about how teachers are demons and another network saying ... well, kind of saying something similar.

But if one looks hard enough, the facts are available to prove that public school teachers are not, in fact, the leading cause of America’s demise.

Another issue public school teachers have going against them is that everyone who has ever attended school is an expert on school. If a teacher is doing his or her job right, it looks easy.

And it just isn’t. Being a successful, inspiring, compassionate teacher is incredibly difficult, but students would never guess that.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc (image cropped)

 Joe Public spent 12 years in class, tuning in or not depending on his mood, but is certain that it just can’t be that difficult. It’s similar to Little League dad syndrome. A father played baseball in junior high or high school and knows everything there is to know about the sport.

It is just easy to second guess every move that his son or daughter’s coach makes because, gosh darnit, he played the game! He knows what it takes!

It’s the same as a teacher. Lots of parents are sure that they could do a better job than their child’s teacher.  

The final problem is that there really are some awful teachers who break laws and are inappropriate with children. These stories are on the news and they are heartbreaking.

I will start my 21st year of teaching in September and every time I see a teacher in the news for a sexual relationship with a child, I know that not only is that child’s life in tatters, but also my job just got more difficult.

How teachers can help move the dial

Conversely, when teachers do something wonderful, it isn't publicized. That’s just the way it goes. 

Every teacher has X number of students in their class each year. If each of those parents were more aware of the good things that went on in the classroom, maybe they wouldn’t be swayed by the political rhetoric.

If teachers communicated with parents, invited them into class, and fought the PR battle a little bit, it could change. Teachers have a captive audience every year in each parent. Cultivate that relationship and make them see the good things that happen in the classroom. 

Maybe they’ll find out that those who teach, can.

Ben Jatos is in his 21st year of teaching secondary English. His opinions are his own and in no way represent the views of his school district. He is passionate about his family, the Portland Trail Blazers, the writing of Raymond Carver, and educating young people. For more of his opinions and reviews of literature for the classroom, check out his blog at www.benjatos.com

Homepage Photo Credit: iStock 


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc


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