False Transparency and the Airport Princess

Last Friday was a tough day for me.  I was frazzled, at the end of two full weeks on the road after presenting to 9 different audiences in 4 different cities in 3 different states.  Don’t get me wrong:  The work was fantastic simply because every group of teachers that I met served as a tangible reminder that there are a lot of good people trying to do a lot of good things in our profession.

But the travel was a grind.  There’s nothing glamorous about scarfing down Quickie-Mart sandwiches while sitting in coach, fist-fighting your way through rush-hour traffic in a rental car, or spending more time Skyping your kid than seeing her in person.

That’s why I was close to crushed when my 7 PM flight home from Burlington, Vermont was cancelled.  I knew immediately that it meant another night in another hotel away from my family.  More importantly, I knew it meant mud-wrestling just to get a spot on another plane home.

After waiting in line for close to an hour, I found myself stuck squarely behind a seemingly sophisticated yet simultaneously naive 20-something uncorking on an exhausted gate agent.  “I need you to EXPLAIN to me how you can just cancel a flight and leave me stranded like this!” she shouted.  “You HAVE to get me to Dulles.  I have ANOTHER PLANE TO CATCH.  What don’t you understand about that?!”

With more patience than I could have mustered in the same situation, the gate agent explained that weather on the East Coast had caused travel delays all day long.  As a result, the flight crew scheduled to bring our plane to Vermont from Dulles had timed out.  The airline couldn’t find another crew to staff our flight, which meant that there was literally nothing we could do.

“But aren’t they PAID TO FLY PLANES?” the princess in front of me screamed.  “Put them on the plane AND MAKE THEM FLY ME TO DULLES!”

That’s a pretty simplistic view of what pilots do, don’t you think?  Sure, they are paid to fly planes.  But most reasonable people recognize that flying planes isn’t the ONLY thing keeping pilots busy during the course of their workday.  They are sitting in crew briefings and looking over flight plans.  They are checking weather patterns, they are working through safety checklists and they are interacting with ground crew to ensure that their planes are ready for takeoff.

And pilots aren’t the only people responsible for the success or failure of a flight.  Each new landing brings new challenges.  Planes have to be cleaned and restocked and fueled and loaded with $7 dollar beers and $25 dollar suitcases; bolts need to be torqued and engines need to be tweaked;  gate agents have to screen passengers to make sure that everyone is going to the right place with the right papers; and passengers have to cooperate, boarding quickly and willingly gate-checking over-sized roller-boards no matter how important they think their cashmere underpants, thigh-hugging leather boots and custom-made pant-suits are.

The woman in front of me pretty much missed all of this, didn’t she?  While she THOUGHT she had a good sense for what went into flying a plane, that sense was based on nothing more than the quick glance that she’d gotten through the cockpit door each time she boarded an Express Jet to DC.  Pilots fly planes.  Planes are meant to be flown.  I pay you to do all of this. Now get me to Dulles and do it now.

Writing in Schoolteacher in 1975, Dan Lortie argued that people hold the same kinds of simplistic misconceptions about the work of classroom teachers.  Based on nothing more than their own experiences as students, citizens — and more importantly, educational policymakers — are quick to pass judgment on just how difficult teaching is as a profession.  Teachers teach kids.  They are paid to do this.  Nothing else matters.  Now get in a classroom and do it now.

The consequences of this one-sided view of just what it is that teachers do — which Lortie calls “a false transparency” — are increasingly disastrous, y’all.

It’s easy to believe that teachers are overpaid when you are convinced that the only time teachers are working is when they are standing in front of students.  It’s easy to argue that class sizes don’t really matter when you know almost nothing about the additional planning, assessment and feedback demands that come along with assigning more students to the caseloads of individual teachers.  It’s easy to strip schools of extra services — guidance counselors, social workers, special programs teachers — when you’ve never watched a teacher trying to design plans for classrooms full of kids with an almost incredible range of personal challenges that need to be addressed.

So how do we fix this?  How do we get to a point where the people who hold expectations for and are making decisions about our profession are building those expectations and making those decisions based on something more than the 13 years they spent sitting in a student desk?

We write, we share, we talk, we invite, we explain, and we advocate — at the local coffee shop, on the sidelines of Little League games, in Sunday School, in online forums — early and often.  We pull back the curtains and give everyone we know a behind-the-scenes look at just what it is we do when we’re NOT standing in front of students.

People really do want to support teachers.  They just don’t know how hard it is to teach.  That’s our challenge.

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Related Radical Reads:

The Danger in False Transparency

Teachers and the Lowly Guitar

The Straw

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