Tuesday January 15, 2013

My brother-in-law--who has spent the bulk of his career working in the financial sector -- recently shared with me a revelation he’s had. Teachers now seem just as likely as Wall Street bankers to feel embarrassed to say what they do; they’re waiting for the litany of societal wrongs and why schools are to blame. Teacher morale is at a 20 year low, but now that teachers in Newtown, Conn., took bullets for kids, he’s hoping there might be a little bit more understanding of what it means to be an American teacher.

The annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher indicates that teacher job satisfaction has dramatically decreased over the past two years. The prolonged downturn in the economy, budget cuts at schools, and acrimony over high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations have all contributed to teacher dissatisfaction. One in three teachers now plans to leave the profession within the next five years because they are so disheartened.

I understand feeling disheartened. When I first started teaching, I didn’t worry about my personal safety, but this changed over the years. However, it was never the students who frightened me, it was the parents.

A special education teacher I know hid in her locked office whenever she saw a particular dad drive up to school. He’d threatened her because he didn’t like the results of the special education testing his son received. That same year, a science teacher in my building was bullied by a parent because she didn’t like a particular assignment. The parent stormed into the classroom at the end of the day and mocked the teacher -- in front of students, including her own child -- saying, "Oh, you’re scared! Look, kids, she’s scared."

Often the incidents are not so dramatic but are nonetheless undermining and discouraging. As a member of a middle school teaching team, my colleagues and I yielded to pressure to change our homework policy. The school board felt we were too lenient and should adopt a zero tolerance policy -- no late homework. Any late assignments would be given a zero with no opportunities for make-up. When the next report card rolled around, a member of the board, seeing that his son was failing several classes because of his strict late homework policy, wanted an exception for his son. He evidently felt no shame in asking for a dispensation.

Then there are the incidents that are so absurd that you feel you must be on some version of Candid Camera. I once had a parent -- breasts barely contained by what, in some circles, apparently masquerades as a shirt -- call her seventh-grade daughter a "slut" at a parent-teacher conference. She snorted, "Look at yourself! What kind of message are you sending with those clothes?" I glanced at my male colleague and his raised eyebrows that said, "Oh, Becca, you’re taking this one. There’s no way I’m talking about breasts." Needless to say, I didn’t feel the parent was totally present in my later discussion about her child’s work ethic.

Then there was the parent who shrieked vulgarities at me because my team of recess monitors took the students out on the playground on a day that she deemed too cold for her child. Or the time when I worked as a long-term substitute in a school library, and a parent reported that she knew another parent was purposely not returning books so that she could "get back" at the school about some decision she didn’t like. Then there was my buddy who was threatened with a lawsuit by a parent because she was part of a group of chaperones who suspended a student for bringing alcohol to a school function.

But despite these outrageous incidents that might force even Mother Teresa to throw in the towel, the MetLife teacher survey indicates that teachers who work in schools in which there is a lot of positive parental involvement report double the job satisfaction. They also have a much stronger belief that things will improve. I know these findings to be true.

I could write a column about all the wonderful, dedicated parents who support our schools and our teachers, but these are not -- unfortunately -- the ones we remember first at the end of the day. And to be fair, I could write a column called "Kooky, Ineffective Teachers I’ve Known" -- and I just might do it for balance -- but there’s no getting around the fact that teaching is a very difficult job and some outrageous parents make it so much harder.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy forced many of us to question our elemental understanding of humanity. But for teachers it had an additional quality of defilement. Schools -- to dedicated educators -- are sacred places of promise and potential. The utter desecration of a place of emotional and intellectual shelter is simply crushing. Teachers need the support of their communities now more than ever. Take a moment this week and thank your child’s teacher and the support staff in the building who all contribute to our students’ health, safety and intellectual stimulation. Educators are not perfect, but trust me, in all likelihood they’re well aware of their shortcomings.

Teaching can be an exceedingly lonely job, and educators need to hear from the regular parents because the scary ones make an awful lot of noise.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.