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.


Related Radical Reads:

The Danger in False Transparency

Teachers and the Lowly Guitar

The Straw

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  • LaurieWasserman

    Bill, As usual you’ve nailed it

    Bill, As usual you’ve nailed it precisely, and with a story that is both humorous and serious, all at the same time.

    Today was our 6th grade trip to The Musuem of Science. 150 6th graders on 4 buses seeing The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit, IMAX’ s Jerusalem, time to eat lunch, and  have some fun time exploring the hands on activities/exhibits. Sounds like an easy day for folks not in our profession. Just walk around with kids and get paid for it, right? If you’ve ever tried to organize a trip of any kind with kids outside school you know differently. Collecting money and permission slips, making reservations, make sure there’s enough money for the buses and the kids who can’t afford to pay can have a scholarship, brining Epipens and inhalers, ensuring the kids who are on free and reduced lunch get bag lunches, and the kids who don’t get free and reduced lunch actually remember to bring a lunch in case they usually eat the “hot lunch,” counting heads on the bus, off the bus, during the trip, every time they go through a crowd, need to use the restroom, and then back on the bus. I have always wished people who made assumptions about other professions actually did the other person’s job before they made statements like your Dulles passenger wanna be

    Years ago there was a wonderful morning segement on Good Morning America with Charles Gibson, “Charlie Do My Job.” He showed how difficult other professions and occupations were. I think it was supposed to be a nice little entertainment type piece. But often he had a message for folks, “think their job is easy, think again.”

    Thank-you, Bill. Hope you’re home safe and sound and making up for lost time with your family.

  • KrisGiere

    Education about education

    Your points are excellent ones.  We need more education about education.  Even more importantly though was how you put it:

    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 can’t formalize this sort of education.  We can’t standardize it, summarize it, or turn it into a series of sound bites for TMZ’s twitter feed.  It has to be personal.  And we have to make it personal.  We need to connect with the people we want to share this perspective with when they are listening.  Because when they are listening, they will not only hear us, but they will carry our voices with them into other conversations so that our stories may echo in the ears of whole communities.

    Thanks for the reminder, Bill, and as always, thanks for the inspiration.

  • Sue Wise

    Educating the public about the teaching profession

    What a refreshing and engaging article, and as Laura said earlier, you hit the nail on the head! We DO need to educate the general public about the various roles and duties associated with the teaching profession. I would add, however, that it is important that we be tactful and mindful in our communications.

    Most often when I hear teachers speak of the challenges they face, the message comes off as complaining rather than educating. Yes, teaching is a difficult job and, yes, we need to tell folks about the challenges we face. But we need to take care to describe these challenges in a meaningful, informative, non-emotional way so that the general public is enlightened rather than annoyed.

  • Renee

    So true!  One of my

    So true!  One of my principals used to say that everybody is an expert in education because everybody has been to school.  Those of us who work in education know how far from the truth that is.

  • Diamond

    What the rest of the world sees…

    …are teachers who actually get paid a decent wage, insurance benefits, and although they may be grading papers at night and working on lesson plans, they get their weekends off, no holidays, a paid week off at Christmas, a week in the Spring, and 3 months off in the summer.


    There is no outcry for the traveling sales rep who spends weeks away from her family or the doctor pouring over patient charts until late in the evening.  There is no outcry for the on-call nurses getting called in the middle of night or for the county snow plow drivers working all night to keep roads clear and safe.


    Increasingly our jobs are putting more and more demands on all of us.  The work day for so many of us extends beyond 9-5 with no additional pay but all the additional stress and expectations.  But this is the life we chose.  There are rewards with all jobs whether its a 3 month vacation in the summer or sales commission or prestige or the ability to make a difference.

    • Becky Osterfeld

      A case in point…

      Diamond, you make excellent points, and I absolutely agree with you that we teachers signed up for this, just as nurses and pilots and plow drivers and every other occupation has signed up for their own challenges.

      Just a quick clarification: any time off we receive, such as a week off in December, a week off in the spring, random federal holidays throughout the year, and most definitely the summer break, is UNPAID. Teacher contracts only cover the actual days in the classroom, plus one or two staff development days throughout the year. We may be off on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other days, but we are absolutely not paid for that day. While we do (in most districts) continue to receive our paychecks over our summer break, this is pay for work we already completed during our contracted classroom days. My pay in a school year is spread out over the calendar year, giving the false impression that I continue to be paid while seeming to be on vacation. And don’t even get me started on how much unpaid work teachers do on planning during their “vacations”… LOL. We love it, we wouldn’t trade it for the world, but we do want people to realize that it’s not the simple job you thought it was when you sat in the classroom as an eighth-grader.


    • Z

      3 month vacation? Wow…
      It’s interesting that Diamond, you would focus on this elusive 3 month vacation. I have been teaching for 7 years and I have yet to get more than a couple of weeks “off” in the summer. Please don’t mistake my comment for a complaint… I wanted to clarify and add some “transparency” to what most teachers do during the summer. We all take additional classes to enhance our teaching, revisit the lessons we taught to rewrite or start over, some attend leadership planning meetings to prep for the upcoming school year, write new curriculum, ensure that practices are aligned and rigorous, and look for new ways to engage our students. We do these things because we want to be better teachers. More importantly, we do it to better serve our students. Yes, I get paid a “decent” wage but I often wonder if it is a fair wage. I left the IT world to teach and my pay was cut in half- if I was on call – I got paid extra… If I had to support my family on my wage we could not do it and insurance is expensive, we cover the family through my husbands company… Again, not to complain- I WILL NOT work in another field -this is my calling. It just gets old to hear others not support teachers. We develop minds!!!!! And besides PTA and others in the field who recognizes the effort?

  • Fran Toomey

    Parents need transparency too

    Yes, let’s have more transparency–not only about what teachers do outside of class (and I know from my own and my two adult children who are teachers) that they do a lot outside of class.  But parents, and grandparents for that matter, want to know what teachers do inside class.  We want to know something about your curriculum, your teaching principles, the way you identify when kids are struggling to learn and what you do about that struggle, how you use both formative and summative assessment, how you use all those standardized test results you are required to administer.  I would love to see teachers send home a short description of their curriculum and “instruction” guides at the beginning of the school year, well before those parent conferences.  I know that some teachers maintain a blog with such information.  I’d like to see all teachers do that.  I can’t help but think that it would provide more support for teachers.  It might also have a positive effect on tax payers recognition of the support system that teachers need to do a really good job with all students.

  • Margie

    Are there documentaries?

    I often tell those who comment on the summer vacation that teachers work a full year’s worth of hours during the school year.

    Has anyone made a documentary that follows teachers through the day, highlights the differentiation needed, etc.  If not, it would be eye-opening for the public.  Perhaps one story could be about the teacher that has a reasonable number of students (18-20) and the one who has 45.  Also, follow a special education teacher who has a caseload of 18 students spread out between two grade levels, when each student has an IEP that requires 20+ hours per week of self-contained intervention.  Could be very interesting…

  • Marian Dondero

    Educating the public about the teaching profession

    Agree!  Communication “forms and informs” opinion. 

  • LInda Aragoni

    Here’s what one school does

    One of the most innovative ways of educating the public that I’ve seen is a high school program at North Middlesex Regional School District in Pepperell, MA, called the Future Educator’s Academy. The program focuses on future educators http://ilnk.me/12c88

    Imagine the effect of just 20 students a year being exposed to what teachers really do. Even if none of those students becomes a teacher, each one has a moderately realistic view of teaching.