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Virginia Journal of Education

How Did this Happen?

How did teachers go from being pillars of our communities to -- scapegoats?

By Christel Coman

Last October, our country celebrated the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. It’s difficult for me to think about the Lady in the Harbor and not think about my grandparents; all four were immigrants from Germany and what was then Czechoslovakia. Today, just mentioning the word “immigrant” can be controversial, starting heated debates on how to “solve” the immigration “problem.” My grandparents weren't problems to be solved: They were hard-working individuals who courageously faced the gut-wrenching fear of leaving everything they knew to face the unknowns of a new country.

None of them spoke English and they all had to face the prospect of making that long journey to Ellis Island and then not being allowed to enter the country. I try to imagine what they must have felt seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, but I can't. They didn’t talk about that much. They did, however, talk a lot about the work that awaited them. Each of them had to be sponsored to come to the U.S., and had to have gainful employment waiting for them. They didn’t start out as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies: They became cooks, carpenters, nannies, farm workers. They took the jobs that the “better” folks of society didn’t want—and were glad to have them. The strength of their work ethic carried them. They weren’t immune to discrimination, either. For a long time in this country, it wasn’t very popular to be immigrants from certain parts of Europe. My grandparents never lost their accents (I miss that), but they became very proud United States citizens. Why am I telling you this? Because, two generations later, these “problems to be solved” left a legacy of hard work and a belief in education that evolved into a professional educator: me.

My grandparents’ hard work and life lessons did one very important thing: those experiences impressed upon them the importance of education. My family knew what it was like not to be able to apply for the more skilled jobs and the jobs that required polished English, and they would have none of that for their children.

My parents and grandparents were serious. School didn’t owe you, and it wasn’t there to babysit or coddle you. It was your job to make the most of what school had to offer. For my grandparents, the winning combination was simple --- a responsible belief in hard work and the unlimited possibilities that school could give you. This was the part that they had missed out on and they knew it. For them, education, teachers and schools were all highly respected and valued. Education was the vehicle provided by society in which their children could do better than they did. Sometimes I imagine them rolling over in their graves when I think about recent educational trends promoting the belief that you never give a student a failing grade. This notion would have been as foreign to them as they themselves must have seemed when first entering this country.

I think my grandmother was especially proud when I announced that I was going to be a teacher. Here was a woman who still mixed up her English and German --- and here was her granddaughter, the teacher. If that doesn’t fill you with a passion for your profession, then I don’t know what will.

I think this is why I find the assault on education and educators today so incomprehensible. Even my 80-year-old mother asked me recently what was going on. She couldn’t understand why teachers were being attacked in numerous public forums and at every opportunity. Sadly, I didn’t really have an answer for her. I miss my grandma very much, but at the same time I’m almost glad she’s not still around to see what has befallen our profession. I know she wouldn’t understand that if she bragged about her granddaughter being a teacher today, her comment would most likely be met with a facial grimace as if to say “I’m so sorry!” How did education change from being the avenue to my grandparents’ dreams to being the scapegoat for most of society’s current ills?

There are numerous arguments and debates that attempt to answer this question. All I know for sure is what I can tell you from years of putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to walk into school each day to face more of the barrage. I still love teaching—or at least what it used to mean. I love seeing the progress that my students make and the all-encompassing glow that they have when they see that progress themselves. Nurturing this—and challenging it—is what working with students is all about. Yet, each day the “tasks” of being a teacher whittle away at the time and the ability to do this.

Every time either the state or the federal government encounters an “issue” or discovers a “trend” somewhere in the country, it means another dozen forms to fill out to document something. And the state doesn’t always accept the federal documentation – and vice versa – so that dozen can easily get doubled. Every time some new wave of ideas comes along from wherever, we’re told that we have to re-invent the wheel. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t given the last “greatest” ideas time to work or not. We are told to change it all.

For years, many asked to be able to attend professional inservice sessions and were denied permission because it cost too much. These days, professional development is seen as part of the “cure” for what ails public education, with the result being that we almost need to re-introduce ourselves to our students for the amount of time we are pulled out of the classroom. Is it any wonder, then, that once we finally get into our own classes and are left alone for five minutes, we want to close the door and maybe teach the way we know how to? How many times have I heard the moaning, “I just wish they would leave me alone to do what I know how to do!”? Unfortunately, that often means we also don’t want to expend any time (or don’t have any to spend) involved in the more complex issues that affect our entire profession. That’s where the double-punch comes in. Our daily ability and effectiveness are micromanaged at the same time that our profession is being overhauled because someone outside of it says it doesn’t work the way it should.

To add to the insult are the growing-more-frequent comments wondering what these “greedy” teachers could possibly still want. They don’t work a full year—or even a full day. There are still many members of the public who truly believe that. “Teachers should just be glad they have jobs.” “People in the business world work hard, too.” And then the final blow: how dare they think they should be entitled to their “extravagant” retirement funds!

Not long ago, I thought about surveying our local members to get a rough estimate of how much time each week they spent on work for school. However, morale being as low as it is, I decided against that for now. I was truly afraid that if they actually saw in print how much time they spent on work, and then factored in their salary (reflective of no raises and increased health costs for three or four years), the money they actually made per hour would decimate whatever morale was left. No one is saying that we aren’t glad to be employed. We’ve worked long and hard to get here. However, the salaries that are offered for what’s expected –well beyond contractual obligations – are not acceptable. Telling us that people in the business world work hard and for long hours, too, makes little comparative sense. Professionals in the business world who work the amount of hours that professional educators do have been enjoying considerably higher salaries and better benefits for a long time.

As far as retirement benefits, I hear my grandma’s voice in my ear again. One of the many jobs she held in her efforts to provide for her family was as a sewing machine operator. When she got that position, she immediately joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Being a union member was as natural to her as becoming a U.S. citizen was. Did she believe she was entitled to all the benefits that went along with that? You bet she did, and she was proud of it. She worked long and hard and those benefits were always considered part of her salary. The same is true of educators. Year after year, many have attempted to cajole us by pointing out that, “While your salaries may not be reflective of what they should be, your retirement benefits will more than make up for that.” We have kept up our part of the bargain since the promise was made to us years ago. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to much of the public, the state has not. Instead, they have chosen to continually underfund the retirement system, borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from it at will, and then blame the resulting financial situation on our greed. Really?

So what about tomorrow? The school day looms ahead and our students wait for us. For some of those students who carry life burdens already too heavy for them, school is their safe zone. We become their advocates, as well as the best part of their day. That is an amazing responsibility, but one that we gladly assume. We try to give them a love of learning and a belief in their ability to succeed, and share that belief by having high expectations for them. It’s nothing less than my grandparents believed in and knew was possible.

What we can’t assume any longer is the role of victim. If we are going to be strong enough to be good advocates for our students, then we need to be strong for ourselves as well. We need to understand that together we have a collective power that we are not using. Others have tried to reduce or take away our power by insisting that we shoulder the blame for all that is wrong with public education. But if we’re wise, we can use our power to help make the changes that really need to be made. We see what needs to be done, every day in our classrooms.

We can nurture, be professionals—and still be politically active. None of those roles has to outweigh the others. If we choose to go in our classrooms, close the door, and say “I can’t” or “Let someone else worry about this,” then we’ve done a disservice to the students who need us and to our profession. I would also be doing a disservice to my grandparents, who looked to education as part of the reward for their long journey. My grandma is watching over me—and she’s still smiling. I want to keep it that way. 

Coman, a special education teacher at Altavista Elementary School, is president of the Campbell County Education Association.



A Growing Chorus

Christel Coman is far from the only Virginia teacher feeling that the profession is under fire like never before. Here’s some of what two others had to say in letters to the editors of their local newspapers:

I am a teacher, and I have had enough. I have had enough of people basing my worth on public officials' opinions and scant knowledge of how I do my job. I have had enough of people demonizing and blaming public workers, unions, and our "plush" benefits for the ills of the economy.

I am tired of receiving scant resources from my government officials, because they refuse to say "no" to special interests. I am overwhelmed by the ills of society, which the public expects my profession to cure.

We are charged with insurmountable tasks--we must teach every child, regardless of poverty, homelessness, divorce, mental and physical health, and many more woes that plague our children. We are charged to do this with fewer teachers, less pay, more students, and more demands.

The crisis in education is not because of us. It is because of politics. Instead of supporting us, government entities wish to break us down.

Melissa Lavery, Stafford Education Association


Teaching didn't make my parents rich, but it gave them the fulfillment of meaningful employment (of which few rich men can boast). They spent the greater part of their adult lives (and continue to do so) educating and guiding, helping more than one generation of students find its way in the world, making invaluable contributions to their community for payment far below what many workers of equal or lesser education expect for their time on the clock. But my parents didn't resent it, because their school division and the Commonwealth of Virginia seemed to value what they were doing. The pay wasn't great, but raises did exist, and healthy benefits and retirement options were available to help compensate for subpar salaries. Teachers had the supervision of their administrators, but they weren't constantly evaluated and analyzed as if they were parolees, rather than professionals devoting their career to doing one of the most demanding jobs on the planet.

Jonathan Templeton, Bedford County Education Association



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