When will Will become a won’t?

(Originally published on May 28th on the Canadian Education Association web site)

The following three paragraphs, I would like to point out, were not written by me.

“… I’m not saying that teaching isn’t something to aspire to, but …, I think it is a backup plan for many. Perhaps it was something to aspire to at one time, but now the profession seems to be saturated with mediocrity. There are very few people who would choose to teach if they had superior (or even above average) abilities in their chosen discipline or specialty… And why would someone settle with being a grade school teacher if they had the abilities for something greater…?

I have come to the conclusion that “[teachers] are often individuals who couldn’t make it in the real world, so they got a B.Ed.” through my own personal experiences in grade school, and even more so by looking back on them. I know teachers and people that are currently becoming teachers… They aren’t people who were top in their class, and many of them took a mindless BA for an undergrad… There are also a few professionals I know who were formerly teachers, and they often mention that teaching was the cushiest and least demanding job they have ever had.

When you work in an artificial market, a sheltered world, you become accustomed to it. What might seem like a large amount of work to a teacher would probably seem quite insignificant to [a] business professional. Grading 30 tests or marking 30 assignments? I was a grader in grad school, and it’s not that tough of a job… Don’t even try to talk about the difficulties and struggles of being a teacher when many other [people] work harder and longer for similar or less pay.”

No, those words are not mine. They were part of a longer comment I was sent recently by a business analyst who calls himself Will.

Now, I have never met Will, but I’ve certainly heard him before. Wherever there is an educational issue being brought forward, for better or worse, Will is there, usually dominating the online comment section of articles or, occasionally, writing an article himself.  Sometimes his name is Paul. Sometimes his name is Bill. Sometimes he even goes by Margaret. Sometimes he appears in The Chronicle Herald, sometimes in The Globe and Mail, and sometimes in The Vancouver Sun. But regardless of the size of the paper, size of the reading audience, or region of the country, Will is there.

And let me tell you, Will knows a thing or two about education.

For example, Will knows that only “those who can’t do, teach”. Why else would anyone who had any sort of ability in another area, such as business (or perhaps, writing) not aspire to those particular professions? Obviously, it is the inability to “do” that causes the “teach”. Why, would someone settle for working in a grade school if they could achieve more?

Will also knows all about the system because he actually went to school. He remembers all those grade school teachers he had that were sub par. He went to University to study business, so knows a bit about “mindless BA’s” as well. I mean, philosophy and religion are good to know, sure, but who is going to hire someone with a degree in English? Really, what choice did those poor folks have besides teaching?

Finally, let’s not forget that Will understands the teachers’ artificial market, where the task marking 30 assignments seems daunting because it is a sheltered world. Such a task would seem minor to someone in the corporate world, especially when that someone, like Will, knows what it means to mark papers.

Will is certainly not unique in his opinions, and the voice he represents seems to have become a bit of a national phenomenon. It has been ringing loud and clear across this country for a few years now, and has been leading the charge to discredit teachers and undermine the profession. It has been chiming in on Tim Hudak’s plan to cut teaching jobs in Ontario, and has been particularly critical of recent job action by teachers in BC. These days, it seems there is a certain sector of the Canadian public that has, to use a local colloquialism,  “an awful hate on” for teachers.

It is this small sector, this vocal minority, that is at the heart of so much of what is so plaguing education today. It seems that, lately, more media outlets, more policy makers, and more politicians are listening to the babble of outlandish and endlessly perpetuated myths coming from the Wills of the world than are actually listening to educators about flaws in the system.

And that should have everyone concerned.

You see, folks like Will have a hard time realizing some core truths about education in general. For one thing, their own experiences in school do not make them in any way qualified to pass judgment on the profession. When Will was in high school, he was probably, like many of us,  a long way from being a particularly good judge of anything. To think that  perceptions formed about education as a grade schooler are a valid basis for criticizing the system as an adult makes one wonder if Will is still sporting acid washed jeans and a mullet.

Will also fails to realize that for many of us,  teaching is not a job, but a passion. Why else, indeed, would anyone decide to be a grade school teacher, considering the amount of public ridicule the profession is currently enduring? Not all of us had the same reasons for getting into teaching, granted, but very few remain because we couldn’t do anything else.  Most remain, I believe, because we simply wouldn’t do anything else.

But it is in his final paragraph, where he states that my market is artificial and that he understand the job because he has graded papers, where Will truly misses the mark. As a teacher, I don’t actually grade papers; I assess students. I assess them to help them learn and grow as individuals, to help them broaden their minds and to help them to think critically. Much as I was helped to think critically while taking my own “mindless BA”.  I do this in a market where my customers are sometimes coming to me hungry, unable to even comprehend the idea of a hot breakfast each morning. I do this in a market where my customers are sometimes coming to me angry, unable to see that I am not the one who is hurting them. And I do this in a market where my customers are sometimes coming to me out of desperation, because in their world of drugs and suicide and depression and bullying and violence, I am the one adult they trust.

I can assure you, there is nothing artificial about that.

At the end of the day, I don’t really care what Will thinks of teachers. Even if I were to write a million words, I could not change his mind. But if I were to propose what I think is “wrong” with education, it would be that when I do get home at the end of the day,  after dealing with the hunger and the anger and the bullying and the violence, as well as the joy and the fun and the learning and the excitement, I can not open a paper, or turn on the radio, or watch the news, without having to endure yet another bout of Willisms.

I also have to deal with the fear that  somewhere there is a politician absorbing those same words as gospel who may very well make a decision based on them. A decision that is likely to make my job tougher, and take more of my energy away from the kids.

All in the name of placating Will.

We should never be satisfied with our education system in this country, should never stop looking for better ways of teaching, should never stop asking the tough questions. But the questions need to be framed by those who actually understand the system, not those who simply believe that they do.

Better education will result when we realize, as a nation, that those who can teach, should teach.

And I hope to eventually see the day when all those critics who currently “Will”, simply won’t anymore.














Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education, Quality education, Uncategorized

4 responses to “When will Will become a won’t?

  1. Hugh d'Entremont

    A few years ago CBC reporter Mark Kelly went into a school in a tough BC neighbourhood to find out what teaching grade school was really like. He found himself overwhelmed by the enormity of the job he faced daily and absolutely inspired children to do more. Perhaps the Wills of this world could try to walk in our shoes for a few days and report once they actually know what they are talking about.

    While I find people like Will annoying I take comfort in knowing that having come from a corporate job where I was successful I have never toiled harder for less money or been happier about the job. Unlike Will I actually have a base of experience form which to form an opinion. I would love to find the mediocre teachers he says overrun our schools. They aren’t in any of the dozens of schools in which I have worked.

  2. Steve

    I think the proverbial ‘Will’ hits on a number of points that you seem to brush off in a manner that reinforces his characterization of teachers as isolated and insular.

    Everyone thinks their job is very important and very difficult, fair enough. Ignore Will’s little jab about that. But ask yourself: What is it about the teaching profession that seems to attract a barrage of criticisms?

    You posit that everyone is an armchair expert because they went through 13 years of schooling when they were ill equipped to pass judgement on it. Also, since they have never been a teacher, they can’t possibly understand the complexity of it all. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment.

    I would argue it is, in fact, an incredibly insular profession that can’t bear any kind of outside criticism. What qualifications must you have to critique the public education system?

    Let’s see if I can pass the test.

    I am a product of the NS public system myself, graduated high school in the mid-90s.

    After high school I attended university and received a professional degree, worked for a while in the industry and did a PhD in Great Britain. I taught in post-secondary for 5 years and returned to industry a couple of years ago. So I know what it is to teach, year on year. All the administrative nonsense, the standardized testing, modes of assessment, accommodating students with disabilities, etc…

    So, can I say a few things about the state of public education in this province?

    The teaching profession has become incredibly inbred and self-absorbed. It is my understanding that Albert Einstein, were he still alive, could not teach physics in our system without getting his BEd and subbing for a half-dozen years to ratchet up his union seniority.

    The 18-year old students entering post-secondary education are poorly equipped to learn. They simply lack the basic study skills for independent learning. Having taught in an engineering faculty, these students are your cream-of-the-crop.

    The 18-year old students entering the workforce have little to no useful skills and a scant general knowledge. Perhaps this is a problem with curricula, but I think it’s up to teachers, as professionals, to accept that there needs to be change.

    I have two pre-school aged children and, if I could afford it, I would not hesitate to send them to private schooling where the teachers are paid less than the public system, but the facilities are student-to-teacher ratios are far superior.

    I say this not as a knee-jerk populist, but as a well-educated person who believes in public education. Three of my four great-grandmothers were school teachers in rural areas. They had a one-room schoolhouse education and a Normal College diploma, but knew Latin, read Shakespeare, could do arithmetic as quick as a calculator and had handwriting as fine as a computer font.

    There needs to be a change or the public system, it’s bureaucracy and unions will die at the hands of homeschooling, charter schools and the internet.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for the exceptionally well thought out comment.
      I have a few thoughts for you as well. I would have to say that I would absolutely value your commentary on education. Particularly your experience in teaching post secondary engineering. However, I would never in a decade presume to comment on your classroom, your content, what you get paid, your hours of work, or any number of issues that seem to be fair game when it comes to folks like Will. I went to University, and I knew some engineering students, but that in no way, shape or form gives me any credible knowledge on the subject of your job.
      As to the quality of the students that you received, I would be interested in finding out where, exactly, you taught, and what your University’s criteria was for admitting students. If, as you say, you were finding students unprepared, perhaps your institution could have created an entrance exam or qualifying course as part of the process? Unless, of course, that doing so would mean fewer bums in seats and fewer tuition dollars. If we are pointing fingers, then perhaps your own institution should shoulder some of the blame on that one.
      Finally, to your point about the profession being inbred and self absorbed. Yes, we have a seniority based system, and Einstein would probably have had to sub for a few years. But the alternative is that Einstein would never have been hired because the job he was applying for would have gone to the Principal’s niece. Having a clear system in place, despite its obvious flaws, trumps no system at all.
      Teachers have never said that there is not room for improvement in education, and the vast majority try very hard to get better at our job each and every year. Change based on sound dialogue is welcome. Change based on the words of “knee jerk populists” is not.
      Again, thanks for the comment. Reply anytime.

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