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Point of View: Affirm the nobility of teaching

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Joshua Hawkins
Joshua Hawkins

“I’m just tired,” my mom said to me recently. Mom, an elementary teacher, is retiring from public education after 30 years of faithful service. Her decision to retire is deserved and timely. However, with the loss of every effective teacher without a commensurate replacement, the balance of quality diminishes. My mom is still healthy, her capacity undimmed, and her commitment to education and teaching high. Yet, she is “tired.”

This is hardly the first time I have encountered such weariness. In fact, a general lassitude pervades the profession. Speaking with a career teacher shortly after last spring's teacher walkout, she said of herself and her colleagues, “We are all tired. It has been a long year.” Why at the epochal moment was weariness predominant? Why not exaltation? Nor even satisfaction? I initially identified the phenomenon as “mass teacher burnout.” Upon reflection, this term is insufficient; the innocuous word “tired” signifies something else. Educational researcher Doris Santoro defines demoralization as “… a form of professional dissatisfaction that occurs when teachers encounter consistent and pervasive challenges to enacting the values that motivate their work.” I posit that teachers’ expressions of tiredness may be a symptom of demoralization.

Could all of our attempts to address the protracted teacher-shortage crisis have been ineffectual because we are beginning on the wrong side of the issue? If the problem is the demoralization of teachers, then the solution may be to do less, not more.

Let us assume that teachers are, for the most part, capable (I admit that with multiple, unequally rigorous routes to certification, this premise could be questioned). Further, let us assume that capable teachers are generally committed to doing their work well. If we begin with these premises, then would it not be more beneficial simply to let qualified teachers teach, to support their teaching in ways consistent with the specific needs of their classrooms and students, and to trust that they are genuinely acting for the good of our children? Systemic disorganization, externalization of control and regulation, the imposition of innumerable nonessential tasks, lack of legitimate support and essential resources to enable and enhance learning, and performance-based accountability mechanisms all have contributed to undermine teaching as “good” work. Consequently, teachers feel demoralized.

Cicero queried, “What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation?” Unfortunately, it seems we have ceased to affirm the nobility of teaching. We have reduced education to banality and its purveyors to pedantry. Unless we begin on the right side of the issue (asking the right questions), I fear public education will continue to drift and excellent teachers, like my mom, will sleep.

Hawkins is an assistant professor of education at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

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