Starving the lions of the teaching profession

In New York City, the lion is one of our most prominent symbols. Over the course of human history, the lion has stood for royalty, strength, and ferocity. These characteristics resonate for its citizens, who try to match the speed at which high rises get built with comparable foot speed and speech volume. The lions of New York aren’t just the most prominent playwrights, politicians, and financiers among us. It’s also the lady who can organize a whole neighborhood around a social issue at her Latin-food restaurant, the kid who hijacked the local school gym for a breakdance battle, or the man who plays unofficial tour guide for a few dollars.

Oh, and the teachers who taught for years at the neighborhood school where they’ve seen their alumni’s younger siblings and children.

Understated in the conversation about teacher shortages is why we as a society should care. To many, teaching is a job like any other. If you do well, you keep working at it. If you don’t do well, you work harder. If you aren’t good at it, you leave or stay on and make students’ — and their parents’ — lives harder. At the same time, people who hold this belief won’t come into the profession for reasons that contradict their original simplification. Of course, a teacher’s work consists of any number of roles that go understated, under-trained, and under-appreciated. Low pay, lack of respect, and challenging work conditions stagnate PK-12 educators into incomplete narratives, and starve the lions of the profession.

When I think of the lions of our profession, I think to those who, when it seems like our school systems are at our lowest, they’ve shown the path forward. They provide hope, inspiration, and vision when those with “titles” do not. They’re in our classrooms, leading by example and voice. They roar for two purposes: to admonish those doing harm to our students and communities and to reorient both of us back into the work. Lions don’t necessarily name themselves nor do lions need a boss to give them the title of “lion” either. Yet, whether they’re recognized formally or not, they still have the understanding of the crucial power vested within themselves. They guard the “house,” even as the house at times cannot reciprocate that protection.

The communities trust these lions and hand over their young as a result. That deserves a deeper appreciation.

Yet, our actual status quo proffers reforms that seep joy, creativity, and endurance from the experiences of the average educator. Mandates about everything from standardized lesson plans and seating arrangements to professional development and school governance overcomplicates the simple generalizations about our chosen profession. While some may believe that their original reason for these mandates was innocuous at best, they seldom create buy-in for initiatives they seek for schools. Districts and their administrators have any number of ways now to create more stringent and miserable conditions for our kids to learn and our adults to teach. Policymakers are well within their right to believe they can decrease the margins of error in results by enforcing more predictable teacher and student behaviors, but this often discards innovative teacher and student practices.

And with this narrowing, dehumanizing process comes a lack of respect, trust, and sustainable teaching. Students don’t deserve lions with broken hearts.

The solutions laid out across this roundtable discussion are worth engaging. With all the conversation about the barriers and cages around educators, it’s even more critical to analyze who created them and encouraged their manufacture. The lions of the teaching profession, those who our field considers the “best of us,” still have miles to go before having equal voice in our own profession. Consider how we’re now at a point where promising educators leave after two years because they believe they can make more of a difference in children’s lives outside of the classroom. Consider how many people add a little flourish to their resume by adding that they taught in an already under-resourced school for a couple of years. Consider how one of the premises for the development of our latest wave of standards is that college professors who may or may not not have strong pedagogical skills believe that PK-12 teachers aren’t preparing students to meet them.

Consider that our society would prefer someone outside of the classroom to speak on education issues in any number of venues.

While the question of teacher shortages needs more qualitative data, I see the reluctance of critical and compassionate educators to tell their stories. The profession seems to draw folks who openly prefer to talk about their work with students, so asking them to highlight themselves is often a non-starter. But I struggle now with this disposition and one that allow us to put both feet forward: one dedicated to the work of the classroom and our students, the other dedicated to the work of our peers and the system as a whole.

Sonia Sanchez once asked us if our house has lions. With all that’s happening in the world, it’s become a liability for our educators to be unresponsive to the affairs of the world. The lions keep leading us. Let’s take some pride.

José’s post is part of a roundtable blogging discussion sharing educators’ stories on our nation’s teacher shortage. We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation by commenting on and sharing this blog and by reading the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the discussion on social media.

  • Lauren L-Deezy Ja’Breezy Nom

    I agree, teachers need to have more of a voice in the policies that are being passed in our schools. How can we give our students what they need to succeed when we are being caged by all these policies? The teaching profession is often underrated. People don’t seem to understand that teachers go above and beyond to help their students excel and are often seen by students to be more than a facilitator for their education.