I teach at the same school my son attends & with the craziness of the end of the year approaching—events, report cards, conferences—I’ve been switching my teacher/mom hats pretty frequently lately. It can get a little hectic but one of the many blessings of being both a teacher and a mom is that it gives you the ability to see both perspectives of two really important & challenging jobs.
Just recently I was added to a Facebook group that a local parent formed in support of teachers with the purpose of advocating for an increase in pay, and it’s gaining popularity quickly. Despite now being a Montessori teacher no longer part of the public sector, I care about this mission because I was a public school teacher for ten years, I'm a parent and concerned citizen, and I fully support any movement that stands behind teachers in general, regardless of where they work. But after being added to this group and observing the posts, I realized that, regardless of whether the pay raise comes to fruition or not, perhaps the greatest value of this group is the feeling of support it provides--5,000+ community members saying "we see your value and stand behind you".
It's a promising movement to witness. The parent-teacher dynamic has been an interesting one to observe in my years of teaching, both in the public and private sector. It's really been a mixed bag--parents who show their support, those who do not, and those who seem to land somewhere in the middle. I've witnessed such incredible support from parents over the years and it comes in a variety of forms. I appreciate that support whether it comes in the form of meaningful heartfelt words, gifts, or volunteer hours--whatever way they are inclined to express it. What comes through all of it is "I see you...I recognize what you're doing and value it".
But it would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to acknowledge the contention I've observed as well over the years, on both sides, between teachers and parents. For some, the parent-teacher relationship has become fractured. While it's the small minority, I have encountered parents who entered our relationship from day one with defenses up--a wall I knew I'd have to work to break down, and I've often wondered if it comes, at least in part, from their own negative experiences with school growing up.
The worst case of this I've ever witnessed was in a group meeting years ago involving a father & several staff members with the purpose of coming up with a plan on how to best support his son. He entered the meeting, having never met most of us, with such anger and distrust that I knew it could only come from his own history of negative experiences in school. He later revealed that was the case--he had long ago lost trust in teachers and school staff. Without that knowledge coming in, we didn't stand a chance in helping him or his son before we even got started.
Ideally, the relationship between parents and teachers should be one where respect is mutual and they work as a team toward one common goal: the growth and well-being of that child they will share for 10 months. If every open house or meeting started with each side voicing that as the mission statement for the year or the intention for the meeting, maybe any resentments that either side has coming in could begin to be diffused.
I've heard parents over the years who say "teachers don't support my child"--these are the ones often labeled "difficult parents".
Likewise, I've seen weary teachers who have many years behind them expressing sentiments like "parents just don't support teachers"--these are the ones often labeled "disgruntled ".
We see this labeling and generalization of groups in many areas of our culture: in politics (Republicans labeling Liberals as __________ and Liberals labeling Republicans as __________), religion, race...you name it. But, in my perception, all of it stems from the same cause: a feeling of "you're not seeing me, you're not hearing me" over the years that builds up and leads to deep resentments, and those resentments create walls. The taller the walls get, the harder they are to break down, and that results in a sort of learned helplessness. In other words, after enough negative experience or frustration with a particular group, we begin to generalize the whole as "bad" because dismissing them is easier than the energy it takes to remain open-minded, open-hearted, and consider people on both sides as individuals.
The only solution to division in politics, race, and yes, even the parent/teacher dynamic, is to be willing to break down that wall of built up resentment whether it's on the parent's end or teacher's end. And the only way to do that is to be willing to see things differently--for teachers to begin looking at parents as individuals and parents to look at teachers the same way, considering them on a case-by-case basis.
I'm a teacher and a parent and I can say that one of the many reasons I respect the opinions of my son's teachers is that I know firsthand everything that goes into this incredibly difficult and important job. It's like my sister who used to wait tables--she's the best tipper ever. Why? Because she understands all that goes into the job--she respects it. Someone who hasn't done a particular job may be ignorant to all the challenges it involves beneath the surface. And I believe the lack of respect we receive from some members of the community—not all—stems from exactly that: an ignorance as to the level of skill, training, multitasking, organization, time management, creativity, and patience it takes to do this job well.
But, when it comes to poor relations between any groups, isn't ignorance often the root cause?
A lack of understanding?
Assumptions rather than facts?
Not having walked in the other’s shoes?
Lack of respect is often bred through ignorance, and ignorance comes from lack of information. So part of our responsibility as teachers is to inform the public—including the parents of our students—of our credentials, certifications, and expertise. At Open House each year, I hand out a personal letter to parents that includes my philosophy & mission for the year and, attached, a resume of my education, experience, and training. It’s not bragging or showboating, it's communicating "your child is in the hands of a highly-qualified professional”. If your doctor has his or her credentials hanging on the wall, you should too as a professional. Some teachers may argue "why should I have to sell myself to earn respect?" I see it more as facilitating a paradigm shift that needs to happen in the way the field of education is perceived, valued, and respected.
What I believe teachers have been trying to work toward for so long is not just higher pay but the recognition of two main points: #1-that the job we do carries an incredible amount of responsibility and a workload often not proportionate to the time alloted and #2- dispelling the notion that certain caretaking/service jobs should be done for "the love of the game"--the idea that, if you ask for more fair compensation, you are not "in it for the right reasons". Yes, many of us (including myself) are primarily driven by love for what we do and who we serve but, at the end of the day, this is a career--a line of work. What we do is of great value--perhaps THE GREATEST value. And we choose every day to not only teach them rigorously but to put their safety first, even as the job continues to grow more and more dangerous by the day. We are not asking to be millionaires, we are simply asking to be able to breathe a little easier at the end of the day having worked a job that carries so much weight.
But let's be real, these are not new ideas--these points have been raised over and over and over again throughout the years. I'm not sure the message falls on deaf ears, people hear the words...I just think the perception is the problem--that we're somehow whining or complaining, rather than raising valid points that warrant consideration.
This raises an interesting but important question of why that perception is there in the first place. Others will undoubtedly disagree, but I believe that part of what’s behind this perception is that teachers are a predominantly female group. If members of a largely male-dominated field ask for more compensation, they are often perceived as advocating for themselves, while we are perceived as complainers. I can't help but wonder if this has to do with a larger collective perception around how people perceive men vs. women speaking up for what they need.
The movement I feel happening at this time in history, in so many arenas, is about ending generalizations about whole groups of people--whole genders, whole races, whole political parties, whole professions--and to move toward respect over ignorance for that which we do not know. When it comes to compensating teachers in a way that more fairly matches their level of responsibility and workload, I cringe when I hear the phrase "the fight for higher pay". Who are we fighting? Our public? Our public includes other school staff, our classroom parents, our neighbors. The term “fight” immediately invokes defensiveness in those on the perceived "other side". News flash: there is no other side. We, as a community, are in this together for the collective good of our children. When teachers can pay bills without robbing Peter to pay Paul they can sleep better at night, they're less stressed, they feel valued, "their cup is full"--and that only means better stuff to give to our students.
So no, I’m not really an advocate for "the fight for better teacher pay". Rather, I'm more interested in participating in an evolution of how our work is perceived & valued. This doesn't happen overnight, but when it does and our work is more highly valued by the public, the higher pay will result as a natural byproduct of that change in perception. In a sense, we're fighting the effect rather than addressing the cause.
I think I also speak for many teachers when I say we're so grateful for those of you, like the Facebook group mentioned previously, who already show us that shift in perception--you are contributing to that evolution and you keep us going. We see you, too.
While the word "teacher" is used throughout this post, there are a number of roles that make up a school staff who work just as hard and add just as much value to our schools and are also underpaid : paraprofessionals, extended day staff, custodial staff, school secretaries, front desk, cafeteria staff, I'm sorry I can't mention you all but THANK YOU...we see you, too.