To Change the Education System, We Need to Strengthen Our Belief in Our Teachers

Select women in the U. S. now “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune” (Hamlet). Daily, in boardrooms and dining halls, living rooms and the halls of government, certain women are under siege, belittled, and scorned. Their meager wages and hopes for a retirement erode as Wall Street plays with pension money, and legislatures, dominated by men, gut the hard-fought right to bargain for good wages and benefits.

These women are teachers, a profession that has been open to women since the first half of the nineteenth century when Horace Mann proposed an education for all, free of religious oversight. Mann’s idea took hold, increasing the demand for teachers, but most men then, as now, did not choose teaching as their profession. They sought higher paying work in business and industry so educators turned to women.

Policy-makers, also known as men in the nineteenth century, believed women could be good teachers. After all, they said, women are naturally suited to teaching; they play the role of nurturer and teacher for their own children. Surely, they could be trained to teach children other than their own. Perhaps even more important to these men was the fact that women, unequal under the law and newcomers to the workplace, could be paid less than men, making common education more affordable for all.

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Women, who had long longed for some independence and roles other than domestic, did not protest their lower wages and began to fill America’s classrooms. In the early years of the twentieth century, women staffed 75% of the school rooms while men served as principals and superintendents. Today, the gender and wage disparity continues. White women are at the helm in most of America’s classrooms while men still hold many of the available administrative positions for which the salary is higher.

However, all public school teachers, male and female, while undervalued in salary, are now paid equally, thanks to bargaining rights, organized bargaining, and equity under the law. Education and experience are the criteria by which teachers earn more. No longer will an eighth-grade education suffice, as it did in the first half of the nineteenth century. Now future teachers must complete a four-year university or college degree in order to compete for a teaching position. About half of the teachers across the nation have earned a master’s degree as well.

Every year, America’s teachers, most of whom are women, produce graduates who go on to become college students. Every year, America’s women foster future leaders, CEOs, rocket scientists, artists, musicians, scientists, and other teachers. Every year, our nation grows, and teachers share responsibility for that.

Still, many decry America’s teachers. Currently, 9% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 do not hold a high school diploma or GED, but in 1980, 5% more of the nation’s youth failed to complete requirements for high school. The data suggest that America’s schools are performing better now because more students stay in school to earn a diploma or its equivalent. Yet across the land, I hear talking heads, pundits, world leaders, bloggers, and Average Joes open discussions with one or all of the following.

  • America’s schools are a disgrace.
  • Our dysfunctional schools . . .
  • What can we do to heal our failing schools?
  • Education needs reform.
  • “Teachers are like feral pigs. They run through the slop and muck, eating everything in sight, then they want more. And when you slaughter them, sure, the meat tastes okay and I suppose you could live on it, but it’s nothing like the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of a corn-fed sow” (Mark The Hammer Hammerschmidt).

Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, without attribution, echoed Mark The Hammer Hammerschmidt when Costello said on September 13, 2011 that “feral hogs, . . . reproduce three or four times a year, they eat anything and everything, and I kind of think there is some comparison between bureaucrats and feral hogs.” When criticized, Mr. Costello refined his remarks, saying he did not intend to offend all workers, just “special interest groups” such as teacher’s bargaining organizations, the OK Education Association in particular.

Dear Reader, I hope you recognize how egregious Mr. Hammerschmidtt’s remark is. I hope you object to Commissioner Costello’s analogy as well. I hope nasty, hyperbolic ad hominem attacks offend you because I am outraged. An assault on public education is unwarranted, but these attacks smack of misogyny. Most teachers are women, after all.

America’s schools, especially in the inner cities, are serious business for serious-minded people who seek solutions that are possible and good for the many, not for the few. More inner city kids and more kids in minority categories drop out. By some reports, including a recent video documentary, “Too Important to Fail,” by Tavis Smiley, many African-American males in major cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, drop out early, never to return. But did the program indict teachers and thus women? No! Poverty, health care needs, social services demands, and unequal school funding as well as teaching and administrative staff are all responsible with socio-economic conditions ranking higher than educators.

Teachers are part of the solution, not the problem. They cannot, however, cure the nation of its many sicknesses without a public will.

  • Unless we believe in empowering women in whatever work place they find themselves,
  • Unless we believe in empowering citizens of both genders,
  • Unless we act upon the belief that children are our future by protecting them and not condemning them to pay for our errors,
  • Unless we act with compassion and charity to remedy the suffering that exists across this land,
  • Unless we value the dignity of women and men in equal proportion,
  • Unless we believe that all people, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, religion, and sexual identity are equal under the law, entitled to gather, to press for better working and living conditions, to work for a wage that allows them to consume the products they make, to speak freely without fear of hostility or jeopardy, to differ civilly, and to fund fully a quality education for all,

Then we just may be lost.

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Connye Griffin
My life has both purpose and meaning because I weave words together to inform, inspire, and illustrate. As a former teacher with thirty-seven years of experience and now as a freelance writer and editor, I have coached others to communicate their messages effectively and listened closely to help others record their memories. I have written, edited, and coached all my days, and these have made for very good days.