How Do We Change The Perception of Teachers?

RespectWhat if this were the perception of teachers!?  cc licensed flickr photo shared by instantvantage

One of my former colleagues was very fond of saying “Perception is reality.”  A recent discussion with some friends brought this back to mind as we talked about how students build knowledge.   The discussion focused on our belief that students, and all human beings for that matter, build their opinions of things by interpreting the facts and not

Continuing on this line of thinking, one of my unending struggles centers around my inability to understand the negativity towards educators in the United States. I know I tend to take a simplistic view on some complicated issues, but really is this that complicated?  Perhaps, it is.

Here is what I know for sure:

  • Teachers work hard
  • Nearly everyone has been involved with a significant number of teachers
  • Most teachers are passionate about students and education
  • We can all quickly name those teachers who made a difference for us
  • We can all  quickly name those teachers who we have a negative perception of and it is an extremely low percentage of the teachers we had
  • The negative memories are strong ones

My first hypothesis on the negativity towards teachers is quite simple. The fact that these negative memories of a small number of teachers remains so vividly in people’s minds leads to this sad stereotyping of teachers and the unfair painting os so many with the same bitter brush.  Fortunately, I have a more positive view of people than to end with this very low-level conclusion.  I also am not willing to simply blame the media who play a large role with negative sound  bytes and attention-grabbing headlines anytime one of the 7.2 million employed under the title school personnel do something ridiculous and/or criminal.  Isn’t it a given that when we take any group that size, we will have some members of that group who we would like to disassociate ourselves with?  I mean we are not so simpleminded  to just assume an entire group should be moved out the door for the actions of a miniscule percentage.

But then I begin to wonder if there is not something bigger at play here.  Could this negativity be building due to the fact that more and more adults are finding that the skills that they acquired during their formal education are not serving them well as they try to make a living? Is there a growing population of people who are starting to realize that much of what they spent time on in our schools left them unprepared for the world beyond our doors?

While it is clearer each day that we need to change how we educate our students, I am left to ponder if the change in how we educate will lead to a change in how we perceive educators?



  1. The most striking part of your reflection, for me, was this paragraph:

    “But then I begin to wonder if there is not something bigger at play here. Could this negativity be building due to the fact that more and more adults are finding that the skills that they acquired during their formal education are not serving them well as they try to make a living? Is there a growing population of people who are starting to realize that much of what they spent time on in our schools left them unprepared for the world beyond our doors?”

    I have grumbled and groused about my own educational experiences–and used some of my negative experiences of “schooling” inform my teaching practice so that I can try to avoid making the same mistakes with my students. For example, I wish my undergraduate education degree had focused less on the proper way to format a lesson plan and instead focused on how to design a lesson to meet the needs of diverse learners–but passing the blame does no good whatsoever. The purpose of an education, I believe, is to learn how to learn. I don’t want my students to learn how to identify a gerund without understanding how to gauge an author’s point of view or bias. I don’t want my students to merely write elegant sentences with semicolons; I want them to discover how to articulate a point of view with clarity, conviction, and strength. If anything needs to change, it’s the idea that education is a product or a purchase. Education is a way of learning how to ask and answer questions that matter. The content for each course is simply a lens, a pathway, for thinking and learning–not the only goal.

    My passion is to make everything I do matter and to make it public. Every class, every student, every school of which I am a part–I want to leave things better than I found them. That has to be our drive. Nothing can change without those who are willing to leave things better than they found them.

    April 16, 2011
    • Shelley Owen said:

      Absolutely brilliant and perfectly articulate. A shining ray of truth, eloquently delivered. You are someone I’d be proud to know and serve in my profession.

      April 16, 2011
  2. You hit a bullseye with this one. The problem we have in K-12 education is the strong culture created by every individual’s experience at one time as a student. This drives much of the passion for teaching and against teachers, all at the same time. We’re so ensconced in our memories, many of which are not even accurate according to research, that we cannot look objectively at the present, nor do we genuinely want anything to change in the future.

    April 16, 2011
  3. MarySue Gulick said:

    I also think it has something to do with the fact that we take care of people’s children all day. Some people resent the fact that their children quote us, and think we are pretty special. Maybe this is just an elementary phenomenon, but sometimes I think it’s like a type of jealousy that festers.

    April 16, 2011
  4. Jen Gallatin said:

    I wonder how many of the people questioning teachers put all of their heart & soul into their education. Many times when students graduate with skills that are deemed less that adequate, they have not been the most conscientious of students. At least this is what I have found in my 17 years of teaching…

    April 17, 2011
  5. I agree with Jennifer about what is most striking in your article. I hope that adults (parents of students) are coming to the realization that their formal education did not serve them well. We really need the help of parents to help drive change in schools. A few people doing the heavy lifting is like trying to squeeze water out of a glacier. If all stakeholders are working towards a shared vision of an education system that meets the needs of all students there is a far greater chance of success.

    I got into education to make a difference. I want to be the change that I want to see in education (Gandhi). The great teachers I had over my formal education experience made the profession appealing. The poor teachers are the fuel that lights my fire.

    April 17, 2011
  6. Cap Lee said:

    I really doubt that the issue is the qualityof education adults perceive that they received. I truly believe that teachers get a bad rap because of what is perceived as student failure. With the advent of the aftificial standardized test, students and schools were ranked, the first go to college and whenever there is a first, mathematically there must be a last. That makes it easy for talking heads to point to teachers and say Guilty!

    In addition the test has forced many teachers to teach to the test. As teachers were robbed of their profession, they became the ones who “teach poorly” to the test.

    The solution? It is time for all teachers to take back their profession. In order to abolished the artifical ranking of students, the test must be diminished or eliminated alongwith the first and last mentality. In order to do this, we must have a plan ready to replace it. That has not been done, until now. Go to: because thats exactly what our books do. We tell of the dominoes that must fall as well as the building blocks to replace them. We don’t give a rats backside about selling books. We just want to never again look into the eys of “failing” students who are probably smarter than the book learned geniuses who score high on the test

    Cap Lee

    April 17, 2011
    • Cap,

      I agree that the atmosphere that has been created due to standardized testing has led to a lot of these problems. Passing tests that do not reinforce creativity, collaboration, and higher-level thinking are not doing anyone a favor. Add in the movement towards evaluating teachers based on test scores and we will make this whole situation exponentially worse.

      The only way to turn this thing around is by educators sticking together and educating our communities as to what is needed for our children. Hopefully our social media efforts will help us share our successes and move this important agenda.

      April 17, 2011
  7. 80price said:

    You are exactly correct in questioning is what we teach in school, particularly in the upper grades (7-12) “not serving them well as they try to make a living? Is there a growing population of people who are starting to realize that much of what they spent time on in our schools left them unprepared for the world beyond our doors?”

    We continue to push for the idea that every child needs to go to college, but they don’t. There are a higher percentage of careers available that are not based on traditional university studies than there are that require a college degree. We need a paradigm shift in the curriculum that allows students to pursue personal interests rather than a curriculum that pushes 16th or 19th century literature on students who now perceive it as a foreign language. We fight against a public opinion that students need Calculus so that we can compete with China. Very few 17-18 year-olds NEED Calculus. Very few adults do, either. And chemistry would have been much more useful to me if it had been combined with a home ec class that discussed not mixing household cleaners and how to add different ingredients/components to food (yeast, baking powder/soda, vinegar) and for what reasons.

    We need to make sure that the elementary and early middle school years give children a concrete foundation in the basics- any and all academics that are tangible and identifiable by specific goals. Either the student can or can not convert units of measurement. Either the student can or cannot name 3 reasons WWII began. And until the concrete measurable goals are met, that child needs to continue to study and practice just those skills (albeit with a group of peers that also are not meeting the goal) until mastery has occurred. THEN with these fact-specific skills learned, we can open the doors to the abstract in late middle and all of high school.

    There needs to be job training involved from about 14 years & up. Students should spend part of each school day learning a basic set of skills needed to do the job that interests them. This is the way we learn what we do and do not like or want to pursue as a career. Why do we wait until a student finishes high school and starts working at the factory before allowing the kid to realize that he/she hates assembly-line work and now needs a new set of skills to do something else? Only now it’s too late since the 18 year-old is out of school and going back is much harder that knowing where to go the first time around. Part of graduating from high school needs to include having something lined up for after graduation. Whether that be a traditional college, a technical school, or a job, we should not turn the students out with no idea of what step comes next. I know we have counselors in schools that discuss college options and sometimes military options, but it should be a requirement that the child leaving school will be reporting for duty, for work, for classes somewhere, not simply walking out of the school’s door and out into the world with no plans for the future.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post and for allowing me to express my concerns.

    April 17, 2011
  8. Negatives are always remembered better than positives. Many teacher work very hard but some just punch the clock. Even within our own ranks there is a feeling that some of us work very hard and others do the very minimum or even less. How do we get rid of the slackers? By administrators doing their jobs properly and fairly and Association leaders helping make a person better but ensure their rights are protected. Finally, you picture is very provocative. It is statements like that on the hat that don’t really help. I know there are a lot of professions out there where people may not work mentally harder but physically I would never want their job.

    April 17, 2011
    • David – I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on the hat. I was waiting for someone to address that. Since teachers are the ones that impact every profession, we need to also be the ultimate models of respect. Your thoughts on the balance needed between administrators and teachers associations are spot on IMHO. I think our lack of ability to achieve that balance is one of the reasons we are seeing outside sources come in and take the power away..

      April 17, 2011
  9. Dawn Johnson said:

    Thank you for articulating something that many of us feel instinctively but rarely discuss.

    As a teacher, when one of my students says “but why do I have to learn chemistry?” my response has changed over the years. When I was a very new, inexperienced teacher, I probably said something fairly shallow like “because the state says you have to.” As a veteran teacher I know the more important reasons. When that question comes up in class, I tell my students that what I am really doing is using chemistry as a vehicle to teach them to think critically and to problem solve. I love the subject (chemistry) with all my heart, and I believe it has importance and significance for every-day life – but if they take nothing else away from their time with me, I do hope they are better questioners, better researchers, better critical thinkers, better problem solvers.

    Believe it or not, it’s the answer that my students are craving.

    I’ve had several of them tell me that it made all the difference in their perception of why they were taking the course.

    If we could move away from parent and student (and educational reformers) belief that “its the grade/score/number” that counts, I wonder if then the public could finally hear and understand what it is we are trying to do in our classrooms.

    Again, thank you for an articulate, spot on, reflective article.

    April 17, 2011
  10. Shira Leibowitz said:

    Could this negativity be building due to the fact that more and more adults are finding that the skills that they acquired during their formal education are not serving them well as they try to make a living? Is there a growing population of people who are starting to realize that much of what they spent time on in our schools left them unprepared for the world beyond our doors?

    You ask provocative questions and have made me think. For that, I thank you. I wonder about some additional (perhaps related) questions:
    Are twenty-first century digital tools fundamentally changing relationships in real time? Is negativity toward educators perhaps related to the fact that we expect access, collaboration, and ongoing dialogue in most relationships while schools are still in the process of designing opportunities for such multi-faceted communication? I do believe we are getting there, but I continue to hear from teachers and parents that it can be a bit intimidating to speak to one another. It’s important to move from a combative perception of “us” and “them” to a collaborative perception of “we”; remembering that the success of our children is our collective aim.

    April 17, 2011

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