Late last year, and not for the first time, the St. Lucie County school system was humiliated when news broke that one of its teachers had bullied a student. In this case, the student was an 11-year-old boy with learning disabilities, who is nevertheless apparently “bright,” can “play Mozart by ear,” and is reportedly an excellent young visual artist. The teacher was a reading instructor named Cliff Kemp. Over a series of weeks last autumn, Kemp repeatedly called the boy “stupid,” a “loser,” “crybaby,” and “Dumpster Boy,” and asserted that the boy smelled “like poop.” After weeks of mounting teacherly anger, Kemp allegedly assaulted the boy with a desk. The student’s mother complained to the school and promptly received assurance that Kemp had been “disciplined,” and that her son would be moved to a new class. But the boy now has recurring nightmares, and his mum is suing the school system for damages.
This has all happened before, more or less. Three years ago, a St. Lucie kindergarten teacher named Wendy Portillo instructed her pupils to take turns explaining why they didn’t like one of their classmates, a little boy with autism. After the children had their say, the boy was booted from the classroom. The student’s mother successfully sued the school district for a hair over $400,000, but Wendy Portillo continued teaching. Later, in another school, she was found mistreating a deaf girl. It was a minor scandal. But I’m told Portillo is teaching still.
Reflecting on the cases of Portillo and Kemp, I’m put in mind of a quaint but popular myth about teachers in this country, which goes something like this: Teachers are people who, from birth or shortly thereafter, possess a love of knowledge, and who upon reaching adulthood pledge themselves to the cause of its dissemination. They love children. They love the sudden light of understanding in a pupil’s eyes, as the pupil apprehends something that was utterly mysterious only moments before. That moment is a blessed one for teachers, for they know their pupils will draw benefit from it all their lives, and the pupils’ enduring benefit will grant the teachers a kind of immortality. Such moments make it all worthwhile: the terrible pay, the endless bureaucracy, the politics, the awful hours, the hatred and suspicion of the voting public, the great masses of uninterested and rude children. Teachers ignore it all, for teachers are saintly.
But as St. Lucie County has repeatedly proven, teachers are not necessarily saintly. Common sense suggests teachers cannot even be mostly saintly, for it is difficult to imagine a teacher’s lounge full of saints in repose who are not immediately put on guard by the sudden arrival of child-beating thugs — who cannot discern from the thugs’ unformed notions of pedagogy, coarse understanding of child psychology, lack of empathy, or generally unsaintly demeanor that there’s trouble coming.
Some teachers are saintly, of course, as the profession’s supreme importance and horrid drawbacks make it attractive to people with soft hearts and a heightened sense of civic duty. But those same qualities make it attractive to idiots, and idiots are far more common than saints. Think for a moment: of the 6 million teachers in America, how many do you suppose entered the profession less out of pedagogic passion than because they were so dull-witted and unimaginative that, upon entering college, they couldn’t imagine where to direct their lives, save back to the drab, beige halls whence they recently came? Or — and this is more sobering — how many committed themselves to the teaching profession because of some vague notion that they “liked kids,” and figured they could cope with a lifetime of lower-middle-class wages if it meant short workdays in the company of cute little cherubs and long summer breaks?
A great many, I think. Probably most. Certainly, non-saints with a whit of sense don’t become teachers. There’s money to be made in the wide world, respect to be had, workplaces that aren’t full of screams and fights and pubescent armpits. Any non-saint with brains and prospects — even a non-saint who “likes kids” — must survey the nation’s jobscape and conclude: teaching sucks.
Teaching didn’t always suck. At least, it didn’t always suck more than the alternatives. Once, teaching was the best way for a reasonably smart young lady to get out of the house, make new friends, and earn money. This was in the early 19th century, after Horace Mann and other reformers effectively agitated for universal education in America. (Prior to Mann et. al., the United States’ few schools were run by churches, and teaching was a noble avocation taken up by men who discharged the bulk of their toil in other professions.) Suddenly the nation was full of thousands of “common schools” — the precursors to the modern public school — and the nation needed thousands of teachers to staff them. The nation turned to women to plug the sudden hole in its workforce, and women responded enthusiastically.
It was a good arrangement for everybody. It was good for the women, who found teaching more enjoyable than sitting around the house, and saw the profession as a gateway into the civil society which had been closed to them. And it was good for the men who ran the country, because they could pay the women shit. Women weren’t expected to be bread-winners, and early women teachers were paid approximately $7 per month — one third the salaries of their male counterparts. Once it became clear that a great many women were eager to accept such wages — which would amount to approximately $180 in today’s dollars — men were actively discouraged from pursuing the profession. And so American education became hooked on cheap, high-quality teachers.
And American education could have them — right up until the sexual revolution and the 1970s, when suddenly there were women CEOs, engineers, and lawyers. Suddenly teaching didn’t seem like the best profession available to the best and brightest American women, and the teaching profession, despite the advocacy of two national unions with more than 250 years of experience between them, failed to compete for them. Their excellent pensions aside, teachers are still paid poorly. At the high end, high school special-ed teachers earn an average of $44,000 per year; at the low end, elementary school teachers earn $40,000. Not slave’s wages, exactly, but hardly the compensation a sane nation grants those entrusted with building its future.
Because of such wretched compensation, I submit that teaching is now the business of saints and also-rans. A sane nation might entice more of the former to take the deal if there was more teaching involved in teaching — if, say, a teacher’s duty was to actually lead pupils into a life of the mind. But that’s not a teacher’s duty. The modern American teacher’s duty is to endlessly prep students for a ten-year barrage of standardized tests. (If teachers seek to instruct their pupils on the importance of critical thinking, or the meaning of citizenship, or the joys of literature, or the true purposes of art-making, they sacrifice valuable FCAT prep-time, which might cost their schools a letter grade.) And a sane nation might entice more non-saintly, but highly competent, individuals to take the deal offering them enough money and status to make the field competitive — by, say, making teaching akin in pay and prestige to being a pediatrician, and by requiring from teachers as much training and diligence as from doctors.
I’m confident that the United States will pursue neither solution, because the first is politically untenable — what would the teachers teach? might it be controversial? — and the latter costly. But I wonder if it could possibly be as costly as our present course, in which teachers ever-more closely resemble the fabled DMV-lady, who sits upon her ample rump and engages in high-volume crowd control, filling out forms no one will read, and which she can barely write.
I can imagine Wendy Portillo working at the DMV. Perhaps Cliff Kemp, too. But it seems likely both will haunt our schools indefinitely. Public education has become so wretched that neither school administrators nor teachers unions find them out of place. Somehow, they are right where they belong.