Why Public Opinion Is Turning Against Teachers

People often criticize teachers unions for putting teacher needs ahead of students, and much of the time these criticisms take the form of the vague ideological talking points I often rail against. But not always. Earlier this month CNN’s School of Thought Blog published an article by award winning teacher Xian Barrett that makes it painfully clear teachers often do stand in the way of changes that will help students. In the article Barrett attempts to explain that Chicago should not extend the school day because teachers already work too many hours.

How much time do I really spend each day?

Most Chicago teachers give our all in very challenging conditions. A recent Gates study suggests that the average teacher works 53 hours per week, while University of Illinois researchers found that Chicago teachers work approximately 58 hours per week. Several years ago, I counted my own hours and found that I was consistently working between 70-90 hours each week.  Through challenging conditions, we impact hundreds of students positively every day; sometimes in small ways, sometimes in earth shattering, life-changing ways.

Let’s take a step back and look a the basics of the debate. A change — more learning time — is proposed that will improve student learning. In an ideal world where student needs trump everything else the proper response is to say, “Great, let’s plan on having a longer school day, and then we’ll figure out what other changes have to be made to accomodate it.” But that’s not Barrett’s response. Without really considering the potential benefits to students, he says we can’t extend the school day because it won’t work for teachers. The current state of the teaching profession is not designed for a longer school day. End of story.

Barrett could argue that longer school days aren’t better for learning. He doesn’t. He could also argue that the drawbacks of making major changes to the teaching profession (e.g. hiring more part time staff, decreasing workload by creating more specialized roles) would outweigh the gains from a longer school day. He doesn’t do that either. (And the fact that this may be implicit in his reasoning speaks volumes.) Barrett simply says that the change won’t work for teachers, and therefore students should be denied its benefits.

This type of close-mindedness is at the heart of the ideological disagreements between unions and reformers. Teachers and their unions can’t comprehend what it means for an education system to truly be about students. For them, the general status quo of the teaching profession is our education system, and any reforms have to be built around it. Reformers, on the other hand, are able to see our system as more of a Tabula rasa. Let’s figure out what’s best and build it. If longer learning days are important, let’s start with a 9-5 school day and then build a teaching profession around that schedule. One reason criticism of unions is on the rise is that the political center and center-left are shifting toward the latter view.

What does all this mean for reform? My take is that it’s extremely important to continue stressing ideal scenarios and the long-term future of the teaching profession. What will a teacher’s job be like in 10-20 years? If we started a colony on the moon, how long should kids there be in school? The more reformers can get teachers to think less about tomorrow’s lesson and more about their job in 2017, the easier it will be for teachers and reformers to envision the same kind of changes.


5 Responses to Why Public Opinion Is Turning Against Teachers

  1. Very interesting. And very continuous of the dichotomous arguments currently exacerbating any real collaborative approach to building, cultivating, and sustaining learning communities.

    As an 11 year veteran of the classroom, I know that educators are authentically students first in both their thoughts and actions. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous and insulting. I also know that the suggestion of a longer school day is not presented “tabula rasa”-style by many advocates of it. It is presented as, “Here’s our idea and if you have any qualms with it, you are a defender of the status quo.”

    Plus, is it so egregious that teachers might consider how policies will affect them, if they are expected to be the ones to implement them? Is this a sign they don’t care about kids? White conservative males have a lot of ideas about what should happen to a woman’s unborn child. Is she wrong for considering how their policies for the fetus will affect her life and her body, and demanding to be a part of the conversation? Is it a sign she doesn’t care about the fetus if she wonders how birth or abortion will affect her own life? Are the white conservative males like Todd Akin the only ones that care about the unborn?

    The personnel who will deliver the longer school day is a vital piece of the puzzle. For a new schedule to be successful for the students long term, it must also be sustainable for the systems surrounding the student — both in social and financial capital. Any conversation that does not honestly look at the myriad pieces at play is going to fall short of its intended goal — student experiences that cultivate life long learning. Any conversation that addresses these elements in a mutually beneficial way will more than likely find that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

    I am all for the discourse about what a longer school day might look like and how it can work for the students, communities and educators. But even your post postures an us vs them position. Is this your way of inviting participants to the conversation?

    If you really want to create dynamic and inclusive discussions around what the teaching profession will look like in 2017 or even 2022, let’s start with blue sky daydreaming and brainstorming. Perhaps we can begin with the question of what kind of experiences will ensure a student’s curiosity survives an education. Or what leads to transformative learning experiences.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response (a rarity). My goal was not to continue the us vs. them dichotomous arguments, but simply to point out exactly where and why the dichotomy exists in the hope of eventually making it easier to bridge the gap. Obviously teachers need to be involved in any discussion about the school day. My big objection to Barrett’s piece was that he doesn’t say this — he flatly rejects the idea of a discussion because it would be too big of a change.

    I think the abortion analogy you bring up actually does a lot to illustrate the ideological disagreement I was trying to highlight. For example, you could make a similar point about financial reform. Replace a few words in your comment, and it says “Liberals have a lot of ideas about banking rules. Are finance executives wrong for thinking about how the rules will affect them and demanding a voice in the conversation?” Both analogies are a bit of a stretch, but I think a lot of the disagreements over education come down to whether you believe teachers are more like pregnant mothers or more like finance executives. Some people clearly believe the former extreme — that teacher well-being is just as important as that of students and that they should have complete say over the “body” (i.e. the education system). Others believe the opposite extreme — that teachers are merely cogs extracting resources (e.g. salary) from a system built to benefit others (students), and that the only thing matters is improving those benefits.

    The optimal point for compromise or policy-making purposes is somewhere in between these extremes, but were so still so far away from real compromise that I think for now the best we can do is identify and articulate the extremes as a first step toward moving away from them.

    • Jason Flom says:

      Unfortunately, in the process of pointing out those extremes we shift the conversation away from compromise and solution oriented ideas and turn it to more of a reality show in which producers (us with a platform of some kind of media — your blog, my blog) spend much of the time focusing on the dramas and less time on solutions (have we been taking cues from NBC’s coverage of the Olympics?).

      So, in an attempt to move back toward solution oriented action, how might we reframe the longer school day initiative so that the target audience (educators and their unions) may get on board with it so that the real target audience–a highly engaged student body–can benefit?

      “In Finland the school systems are organized around ensuring students learn at the highest caliber. To do so, teachers are given ample collaboration and planning time. In fact, any one teacher has less than 5 contact hours with students a day. However, we have much higher poverty rates in the states. Releasing urban students after 5 or 6 hours of instruction lands them back in neighborhoods, communities and situations that can stress them and lead toward a learned helplessness that further exacerbates your job as an educator, and more importantly, minimizes the impact an education can have on their lives and futures. We would do well to keep them in school for longer periods of the day where they can be exposed and engaged in a wider range of ideas, concepts, skills and experiences. So, we have these two challenges — Many students would benefit from spending more time in school and less time in unstable environments and Our teaching profession needs to reflect our commitment to providing students with the best educators our system can produce, develop and keep. What might a school, school system and/or school day look like that balances these two elements — students intellectually involved in meaningful and applied learning for longer periods of the day (read as: being in a safe environment that supports their emotional, intellectual, and social growth) and building, supporting, and sustaining the professional capacity of educators? For the sake of this blue sky brainstorming exercise, lets shelve issues related to cost, accountability, implementation timelines and scalability.”

      I wonder how Xian Barrett might have responded to this invitation to dialogue. The focus is still on the initiative and on the intended objective of keeping kids in schools and off the streets, but communicates an empathy with educators and their frustrations, seeking a solution that is mutually beneficial. This is closer to the kind of tabula rasa that might actually spur some authentic and co-collaborative ideas between reformers and educators, IMHO. 🙂

      As far as it goes for the abortion analogy, you’re right. Every metaphor has its stretch zone at some point in the process of unpacking it, and that one reaches it earlier than later. I only went with it because the “reform law w/out lawyers, medicine w/out doctors, finance w/out bankers” metaphors are getting a bit tired and thought it’d be fun to try to “point out an extreme” with an example that is getting crazy air time right now. Cheers.

  3. Mike says:

    You don’t know any teachers, do you?

    • A few things:

      1. The point of the post is that if there’s an innovation that’s beneficial to students (e.g. a longer school day), we shouldn’t let the structure of the teaching profession stop it. Yes, teaching is hard, but if that difficulty is stopping innovations that will help students then we need to change teaching, not rule out the innovations.

      2. Your comment implies that I lack some important knowledge about what teaching is really like. Hopefully this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but assuming that people you disagree with are ignorant or lack some special piece of information is a good way to ensure you remain in a bubble of epistemic closure and never learn anything new or open your mind to new ideas.

      3. Sorry to disappoint you, but I know many teachers. And every day I go to work for an organization filled by people who used to teach.

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