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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

When teaching becomes scutwork

Scandal and the Zeitgeist rob teachers of the respect they once commanded

New American Media

The yoga class was near maximum capacity. There was a spot up front, but it usually belonged to D, a teacher who practices yoga with us plebes when not teaching. So I moved to the crowded second row. My new neighbor, however, was clearly annoyed at having to rearrange her mat. “You’re a paying customer,” she said. “D’s late. He should move, not you.”

“He’s a teacher,” I offered meekly as she scowled and turned away.

During class, while doing my stretching and striving for inner calm and peace, it occurred to me that despite having met and commingled, East and West are, in some significant ways, still miles apart.

Back in my native homeland, Vietnam, I used to bow. As a grade school student, with arms folded in front and eyes staring at my sandaled feet, I would mumble, “Thua thay!” -- “Greetings, Teacher!” In fact, it took me half a year or so after having arrived in America before I stopped that kowtowing habit, which my American classmates in seventh grade had found either funny or quite bizarre.

Though my innate sense of respect, mixed undoubtedly with a modicum of fear, for the teaching profession remains after all these years, I recognize that my sentiment is a bit out of sync with the collective American psyche these days. Distrust and the willingness to believe the worst about the teaching profession have long caused it to suffer in America, but lately it seems that the teacher’s image has been smeared and dragged through the mud.

Consider the latest news. The Associated Press in a nationwide investigation showed that between 2001 and 2005, 2,570 educators faced disciplinary actions for sexual misconduct allegations. Epitomizing this trend is the recent story of a female teacher who chauffeured a 13-year-old boy across the border to Mexico and allegedly molested him there. Then there’s the story of a teacher suing the school to carry a concealed semiautomatic handgun to school for self-protection in Oregon. In fact, it seems that there’s a horror story about teachers that pops up every few weeks, and that the American teacher is quickly replacing the Catholic priest as the new whipping boy.

Yet the number of those facing disciplinary actions in the AP report is around 0.085 percent of all public educators in the United States, which number around 3 million. And to be fair, far fewer stories of good and effective teachers are being told in the media than tales of bad ones.

If testimony from successful and famous Americans is any indication, good teachers are still plentiful. Many luminaries continue to cite teachers as the main reason for their successes. Tom Hanks, for instance, thanked his high school drama teacher when winning his Academy Award for his role in “Philadelphia.” Oprah is famously quoted touting her elementary school teacher, Mary Duncan Wharton. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan,” she noted. And James Baldwin owes much of his formative years to his white schoolteacher who recognized his talents and took him to plays and brought him books. “She was really a very sweet and generous woman and went to a great deal of trouble to be of help to us, particularly during one awful winter,” he recalled in Notes of a Native Son.

Influential teachers continue to instruct and inspire many youngsters in this country but something in the Zeitgeist now seems to deflate that old nobility, while the atmosphere of disrespect and suspicion thickens. “Teaching is not a lost art,” the historian Jacques Barzun once observed, “but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”

Student-teacher relationships seem to suffer in a world where MySpace and Facebook can undermine integrity and privacy -- not to mention sites like, where students can grade their teachers. Students now blog about their teachers, and teachers, fearful of defamation, vigilantly troll the Internet. The children’s hour has extended to 24/7 online, and this too adds to the cloud of negativity and contempt.

Meanwhile, American reading habits have turned south. Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day, according a recent National Education Association study. The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. Almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure, which may explain why one out of three does not make it to high school graduation.

As teachers cite the lack of parents’ involvement as a primary cause of faltering of education, parents blame that lack of discipline as the major cause. Both camps, however, can agree on one thing: Lack of funding is the second biggest problem.

Indeed, even if nobility is still associated with the profession, the economy is far from showing its appreciation. Many young people who would have gone into teaching have told me they were deterred by financial insecurity. “I would consider teaching seriously but if I ever want to own a house in the Bay Area, I might as well forget that profession,” a graduate from the University of California at Berkeley recently told me. In Silicon Valley, in order to keep talented teachers, there are now housing units being built for many who couldn’t afford a home, as the average salary for a beginning high school teacher is $44,000 in a county where the median income is around $85,000.

Something about our fast-paced, consumerist society seems to have robbed the teaching vocation of the respect it deserves, disposing that once concrete and tender human relationship to a matter of mere transaction. “You’re a paying customer,” said the yoga student. If in my mother’s world of North Vietnam, the word “teacher” is still interchangeable with the word “father,” in the world I live in now, I fear teaching as a profession is in danger of being reduced to “humble scutwork.”

Andrew Lam is an editor at New American Media.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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