Class Bias (With Some Sexism Thrown In) and Opinions of Teachers

I recently offered some uncharacteristically optimistic thoughts on why I think it will be much harder to demonize teachers during the Chicago strike. But like many, I’m confused by the widespread antipathy by educated upper-middle class people–who wouldn’t have made it to where they are today without teachers. But, as Corey Robin reminds us, we have to look at some class attitudes as well (boldface mine):

Teachers were not figures of respect or gratitude; they were incompetents and buffoons. Don’t get me wrong: like most people, I had some terrible teachers. Incompetents and worse. But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition. But among the upper classes it’s treated as the exclusive preserve of teachers….

It’s clear where the kids got it from: the parents. Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.

In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

No one, we were sure, became a teacher because she loved history or literature and wanted to pass that on to the next generation. All of them simply had no other choice. How did we know that? Because they weren’t lawyers or doctors or “businessmen”—one of those words, even in the post-Madmen era, still spoken with veneration and awe. It was a circular argument, to be sure, but its circularity merely reflected the closed universe of assumption in which we operated.

Like my teachers, I have chosen a career in education and don’t make a lot of money. Unlike them, I’m a professor. I’m continuously astonished at the pass that gets me among the people I grew up with. Had I chosen to be a high-school teacher, I’d be just another loser. But tenured professors are different. Especially if we teach in elite schools (which I don’t.) We’re more talented, more refined, more ambitious—more like them. We’re capitalist tools, too.

So that’s where and how I grew up. And when I hear journalists and commentators, many of them fresh out of the Ivy League, talking to teachers as if they were servants trying to steal the family silver, that’s what I hear. It’s an ugly tone from ugly people.

While assholes exist in every income stratum, many middle class people (I mean that based on income distribution, not self-reporting) would be happy if their kids could teach–it beats the hell out of a lot of other jobs. But this explanation rings true. My experience has been that, unless you describe teaching as a calling, K-12 teachers are viewed as losers without drive.

The only thing I add add to Robin’s analysis is that teaching is still viewed as ‘women’s work’ and so is also not valued. It’s not ‘aggressive’ or ‘hard-charging’ or ‘energetic’ because it is feminine–it’s glorified babysitting (obviously, I think that’s bullshit). Class and sexism reinforce each other in this case.

A tangential aside while I hopefully still have your attention: I seriously doubt most of these bozos (e.g., Matthew Yglesias) have ever actually taught. If you have taught, at any level, it’s really hard. Most non-teachers, if they tried teaching, would be eaten alive. And a union card would be a sacrament.

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6 Responses to Class Bias (With Some Sexism Thrown In) and Opinions of Teachers

  1. Markk says:

    Wow, I think the exact opposite (which doesn’t contradict what was said above, thus a great squeeze) is the reason why teachers didn’t get respect among lower middle class people I know. I grew up in working class urban white changing to black neighborhood like a huge number of people that eventually moved to the suburbs. In general teachers were thought of as upper class – not of us. They got paid good money and got great benefits and got 3 months off. They were the direct representatives of the educational elite. They didn’t help our perents get ahead or out to the suburbs. Often for blacks they were imposing white culture or for working class whites they were not teaching what their kids or they needed to know. So from the bottom and the top.

  2. Min says:

    I have a question for those who think that primary and secondary school teachers are mediocre. If that is the case, what is wrong with the market solution? Pay teachers more and attract better teachers into the field.

  3. joemac53 says:

    I think I have told this one before, but here I go again: I was the Math dept head in a suburban high school. I escaped back to the classroom. My replacement (who I had worked with for many years) was given the treatment all new admins were given in my town: Here is something we perceive to be a problem, what are you going to do about it?
    Our school SAT Math scores had dropped three points, although they were still well above the state average. Normally this would not be a big deal, but the central office decided to use this as the problem to be solved. Since this had technically happened on my watch I volunteered to help investigate. Our school encourages everyone to take the tests and we have a very high percentage of students doing so.
    When we looked at the data we found three students who could have helped us out by staying in bed that morning. Our participation rate would have dropped one per cent, and our scores would have risen slightly.
    We decided that the rest of the math teaching staff did not have to worry about this particular perceived problem. I do not know what my new Dept head told the central office, but we did not hear about it again.

  4. R E G says:

    My opinion of teachers:

    I think they live in a work culture vastly different from the majority.

    I think they desparately need to hire a publicist.

    Let’s face it- most teachers socialize and spend most of their working hours with other teachers. Many other professions do for the same reasons.Your work is confidential, you have the same working hours and holidays, you have the same concerns and conflicts with management. The problem is it creates a feedback loop where teachers are downtrodden and misunderstood and everyone else is ….. I’m not quite sure what. I only know that when my daughter’s grade 2 teacher told me that every child should visit Disneyland I didn’t bother telling her it was never going to happen. It was probably in my daughter’s best interest not to point out that our family lived under the legal poverty line.

    As for the publicist … Someone need to tell them to STOP telling all and sundry that they work evenings and week-ends. First- because if you actually became a teacher without noticing that you are too stupid to live. Second – because many, many other people are also working evenings and weekends- sometimes even for teachers. ( They like to tell tradesmen to come on Saturdays. )

    Then the publicist can expain that since their salaries are a matter of public record, everyone else knows what they make. It’s time for teachers to show a little appreciation for what everyone else earns. A LOT of people with a lot of education and experience do not earn as much. No it’s not fair, but it’s true. Complaining that your benefit package does not cover x,yor z does not endear you to people who don’t have one. Crying that you have used up your sick days to someone who schedules surgery during vacation is ridiculous.

    I don’t want to take wages or benefits from teachers. I think the anger directed at teachers and civil servants is the canary in the coal mine. If the 1 % can successfully supress teachers’ earning, they will pick another occupation and clear cut their way through the middle class. It’s only a matter of time before they decide mechanics, or decorators, or hairdressers, or massage therapists are overpaid.

    • E. Rat says:

      I have some serious issues with your response, not the least of which is that your publicist wouldn’t be needed for the CTU strike since they’re clearly defining the issues for which they strike. I wonder at how you came to the conclusion that the issues you mention are the ones teachers foolishly complain about. Speaking as a veteran public school teacher, I can state confidently that my colleagues and I are far more likely to vent frustration about needing both to equip our classrooms and purchase our own professional development.

      Also, I question your imagined teacher culture. Teaching is an incredibly isolating job. I can go a week without seeing many of my colleagues. We have neither common lunch periods nor a place to share food. On rainy days, I may not see another adult for five hours. We definitely aren’t gathering around the water cooler to chat, and prep periods are pretty busy with meetings and prep. Nor is this an uncommon experience, at least in high-needs, low-income schools. The feedback loop you posit doesn’t exist for us precisely because our job is so different than yours.

      And finally, as a teacher who used up her sick days last year treating a condition seriously exacerbated by the lack of functioning heat in my building, I’m truly sorry that you schedule surgery on vacations. But between the lack of heat, leaded pipes, asbestos, mice, roaches, and the simple fact I spend 180 days a year with five year olds’ developing immune systems, I don’t find teachers’ contracted sick leave so unsympathetic. And I strongly and actively support ALL workers having such protection.

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