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The trouble with new teachers

Aaron S. Bayley

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop reading a book when an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. Upon learning that I was a teacher, he told me that he, too, used to teach while living in England in the 1960s. "Back then," he told me, "teachers had all the power but no pay. Today, teachers have all the pay, but no power."

By "power," he was referring to a teacher's ability to reprimand a student--physically, should the necessity arise--without having to answer to a Spanish Inquisition-style governing board. Back then, the story goes, teachers were powerful and respected members of their community. Today, society's respect for teachers seems to be waning at the very moment when teachers need public validation and support most. In Ontario, the Liberal government--led by self-styled "Education Minister" Dalton McGuinty--wants to put a two-year freeze on teacher salaries, delay the pay grid, and cut back on and prevent the banking of sick days. Essentially, the government wants public sector workers to pay for an economic crises they did not cause. In times of wasteful spending, budget-cutters paint bulls-eyes on unions and set out to make workers appear greedy, unappreciative, ineffective and overpaid. It's no wonder that the teaching profession has lost the sheen of respectability it once cherished.

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.

-George Bernard Shaw

While the government is wrong to demonize teachers and make them a scapegoat for societal ills, new teachers entering the profession have a sense of entitlement that is eerily similar to the corporate entitlement that teachers are so fond of criticizing. New teachers have been handed down a legacy built over decades; a legacy of teachers participating in protests, strikes and movements, of fighting for student and human rights and of ongoing learning and an insatiable quest for knowledge. These are the reasons why teachers were--and in many cases, still are--viewed as upstanding members of society. But in an age of technological proliferation and instant gratification, too many new teachers are fumbling the baton.

Many new teachers float down a river in an apolitical stupor, texting, Tweeting, Facebooking, watching YouTube videos of cats or Family Guy parodies of Star Wars, oblivious to the tough economic times in the form of mighty rapids up ahead. Then, when the fall is imminent and it's too late to catch up, they struggle to learn all the clichés: the ones about teachers not getting summers off because they are preparing their classrooms, or about teachers being not only educators, but baby-sitters, counsellors, doctors, and psychiatrists, too! Those who never gave more than a moment's notice to the crisis in education are all of a sudden expert analysts, yet are unable to string together a coherent sentence or develop a cogent argument. When I attended teachers college in 2010, many teacher candidates complained about having to "reflect" about their in-class experiences in journals. Despite this being not a particularly hard thing to do, reflecting engages the mind and crystallizes one's thoughts; it is the bedrock of, well, reflective teaching. Fair enough: let teachers college be solely about friendship, fucking, pubs and partying, but then let's not complain that teachers aren't properly respected. I know many young people who partied their way through college and university without giving much consideration to their career choice. Then, when at the precipice of graduation and an uncertain future, the default option loomed like a neon sign over an all-night diner: Teachers College. Because it's like, sooo easy, right?  And you get the summer off! The disturbing reality is that many young people are getting into the teaching profession for the perceived economic stability it provides, not because they have a sincere passion for teaching and learning. Reading and conversation are the two pillars of intellectual life, yet countless teachers don't even read books or even watch the news. They think they can just download things like "intelligence," "passion," "critical analysis," and "creativity" the way they download music from the Internet. All of this gives a grain of truth to George Bernard Shaw's disparaging idiom.

Of course, it is great that new teachers are making an attempt to become aware and informed. But too many do so only when an issue affects them personally. if we are to teach children about the values of empathy and respect in the classroom, then we must practice what we preach outside in the real world. Otherwise, "social justice" is just a buzzword with no substance (something which is already the case in too many schools). Ironically, one of the most sincere activists I know resigned his teaching position to work full-time for the socialist cause--which includes advocating for teachers.

It's understandable that new teachers would rather attend a workshop on classroom management skills than on understanding the nuts and bolts of their collective bargaining agreement. The former is practical and can be put to immediate use in the classroom; the latter is unsexy and bogged down by fine details and political jargon. But new teachers better come to the understanding that nothing is going to be handed to them on a silver platter. They need to advocate for themselves and not expect to be carried to financial prosperity on a wave of public sympathy. If new teachers want to reclaim the prestige and status that used to define their profession, they need to earn it.


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