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Topic: The Exhaustion of the American Teacher
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
The Exhaustion of the American Teacher
Posted: Jun 28, 2013 5:46 PM
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From The Educator's Room [A fresh, innovative perspective on
education], September 12, 2013. See
The Exhaustion of the American Teacher

By: John Kuhn

[John Kuhn is a Superintendent in the great state of Texas where is a
staunch advocate of public education. You can find him on his
personal educational blog, Edgator ( and Twitter at
@johnkuhntx - note from JPB, take a look at the EdGator piece]

With the 2012-2013 American school year still in its infancy, it's
worthwhile to note that the people doing the actual educating are
down in the dumps. Many feel more beaten down this year than last.
Some are walking into their classrooms unsure if this is still the
job for them. Their hearts ache with a quiet anguish that's
peculiarly theirs. They've accumulated invisible scars from years of
trying to educate the increasingly hobbled American child effectively
enough that his international test scores will rival those of
children flourishing in wealthy, socially-advanced Scandinavian
nations and even wealthier Asian city-states where tiger moms value
education like American parents value fast food and reality TV.

The American child has changed, and not necessarily for the better.
Many shrill voices argue that teachers must change, too, by simply
working harder. The favored lever for achieving this prescribed
augmentation of the American schoolteacher's work ethic is fear,
driven by a progressively more precarious employment situation.

But teachers by and large aren't afraid; they're just tired.

Meanwhile, no one is demanding American non-teachers change anything.
Michelle Rhee wastes none of her vast supply of indignation on
American public policies that leave a quarter of our children in
poverty while, not coincidentally, the profits of Rhee's corporate
backers reach new heights. And no one but Paul Tough dares to hint at
the obvious-but-politically-incorrect reality that a swelling army of
kid-whipped or addiction-addled American parents have totally
abdicated the job of parenting and have raised the white flag when it
comes to disciplining their children or teaching them virtues like
honesty, hard work, and self-respect. Americans have explicitly
handed off character education to schoolteachers. Such a practice
says a great deal about our nation's expectations of its parents.

The problem with the American student of 2012 isn't as cartoonishly
simple as evil unions protecting bad teachers. Nor is it as abstract
and intractable as poverty. The problem is as complex, concrete, and
confront-able as the squalor and neglect and abuse and addiction that
envelope too many American children from the time they step outside
the schoolhouse door at 3:30pm until the moment they return for their
free breakfast the next morning. Meanwhile, the campaign to
understate the impact of devastating home and neighborhood factors on
the education of our children has done little more than curtail any
urgency to address those factors. "No excuses" hampers the
development of a holistic wraparound approach that would foster
education by addressing real needs rather than ideological wants,
because it holds that such needs are mere pretexts and not actual
challenges worthy of confronting.

Like many educators, I've smelled on my students the secondhand drugs
that fill too many of their homes with bitterness and want. There is
sometimes a literal pungency to low academic performance that
remedial classes won't scrub from our kids. But it isn't kosher to
declare that any parent is failing. And it isn't okay to note that
some families are disasters. So out of courtesy, the liberal says the
problem is poverty and the conservative says it's unions.

Truth is, the problem with the American student is the American
adult. Deadbeat dads, pushover moms, vulgar celebrities,
self-interested politicians, depraved ministers, tax-sheltering CEOs,
steroid-injecting athletes, benefit-collecting retirees who vote down
school taxes, and yes, incompetent teachers-all take their turns
conspiring to neglect the needs of the young in favor of the wants of
the old. The line of malefactors stretches out before our children;
they take turns dealing them drugs, unhealthy foods, skewed values
messages, consumerist pap, emotional and physical and sexual traumas,
racist messages of aspersion for their cultures, and countless other
strains of vicious disregard. Nevertheless, many pundits and
politicians are happy to train their rhetorical fire uniquely on the
teachers, and the damnable hive-feast on the souls of our young
continues unabated. We're told not to worry because good teachers
will simply overcome this American psychic cannibalism and drag our
hurting children across the finish line ahead of the Finnish lions.

Yeah, right.

Today, teachers across the land dutifully cast their seeds on
ever-rockier ground. We were all told that a mind is a terrible thing
to waste, and we all became adamant about education; but no one told
us not to waste kids' hearts or weaken their spines or soften their
guts, and we long ago abandoned our traditional cultural expectations
for children's formation. I'm not calling for picket fences and Leave
it to Beaver; I'm calling for childhoods that aren't dripping with
pain and disenchantment and a huge chasm where there should have been
character-building experiences from the age of zero to five. That
aren't marked by an empty space where there should have been a
disciplinarian. And a gap where there should have been a rocking
chair and a soft lap waiting when the child was hurting. I am
referring to missing ingredients that I now recognize as the absolute
essentials, things I took for granted when I was too young to realize
I had won the parent lottery.

Adults-not merely teachers-have caused these little ones to stumble,
but journalists and nonprofits and interloping government experts
offer not a hand to the young but rather a cat-of-nine-tails across
the backs of their teachers. Injustice for teachers is confused with
justice for kids.

"Waiting for 'Superman'" told teachers they were terrible, callous,
and incompetent, that only magnanimous charter school operatives
could save victimized children from their rapacious clutches.
NCLB told teachers they would only be considered successful if 100%
of their students passed 100% of their tests.

Condoleezza Rice told teachers they were so ineffective that they
were a national security threat.
Chris Christie told teachers that when two or more of them gather,
they are thugs. Suddenly, the apple-themed knit sweater is a symbol
of American menace rivaling the leather biker jacket.
"Won't Back Down" actors Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhall, Ving Rhames,
and Holly Hunter used their art to communicate that teachers only
want union protections so they can lock poor children in closets, and
that the only way to protect children from the plague of heartless
unionized miscreants mal-educating them across this land is by
letting their parents hand over local schools to wholly benevolent
charter school operators led by the friendly Mother Teresas behind
Parent Revolution.
Teachers learned from Bobby Jindal that public schools are so lousy
that Louisiana is better off paying for its children to attend
private schools that no state official has ever visited, that teach
any curriculum whatsoever, and that are exempt from any
accountability mechanisms at all because, you know, the free market
will ensure their quality. (Though choice will allow children to vote
with their feet by leaving public schools too, you can bet that
arcane accountability measures will remain firmly in place for them.)

StudentsFirst told America to distrust its teachers.

Eric Hanushek told America that larger class sizes will improve
education and, gee-whiz, they're cheaper too, so why wouldn't we grow
them? Bill Gates seconded the motion.

Barack Obama told teachers he hated teaching to the test, and then he
built Race to the Top of Test Mountain.

The educators I've known aren't the goats they're held up to be.
There are certainly goats, and they've made a terrible mess of
things. There are indeed Americans doing grievous harm to children;
they just don't happen to always be their teachers.

We feel uncomfortable being honest about who they are and what they
do (and neglect to do) to devastate these babies. So we usually don't
speak out about it. We leave out the damning details because they are

When it comes to America's shamefully overflowing crop of ravaged
children, trembling pundits, bumbling policy-crafters, and bombastic
governors lead us in a chorus in which we either blame their
teachers, or we blame something amorphous like poverty, or we blame
no one. It is impolite to point at the blood dripping from the hands
of well-meaning devastators when they happen to go by names like Mom
and Dad.

And so we fix nothing.

The American schoolteacher is exhausted. I am exhausted.

Tom Petty once sang, "Let me up, I've had enough."

That. Please.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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