Saturday, September 15, 2012

Respecting Teachers

Today, the Washington Post reprinted an article extracted from a blog written by Corey Robin entitled “Why people look down on teachers.” Mr. Robin’s opinions are based on his experiences as a student and a teacher and he comes to the conclusion that teachers are perceived, in our society, as those who were not able to achieve as well as doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. He points out that, although teachers vary in their abilities, this is true of people in all walks of life and not a reason to put teachers down. He points out that one or two teachers can truly enhance the course of a young person’s life.  Although I agree with these points, I think Mr. Robin fails to understand the most important reason why many parents have problems with teachers.

As a parent and a psychologist, my experience tells me that the primary issue is that teachers encroach on the parents’ turf, where they insist on using techniques that don’t actually work. I believe that negativity toward teachers is a backlash rooted in their intrusion on the home.

I am a parent of three children. I recall feeling excited walking my oldest son to school the first day. I listened intently at Back to School Night to everything that his teacher said. I didn’t care if he had the best teacher in the world, or one who was simply qualified to teach the class. I expected him to listen to and respect his teachers, and I gave them the respect they deserved. Along the way, I had doubts about a couple of his teachers, but that did not matter. For the most part, he was given an excellent education, and had the good fortune to meet a few exceptional teachers along the way.  My second child’s experience was similar. I respected both children’s teachers and their teachers respected me.

With my third child, my views changed.  Like his older siblings, he was bright, personable, and able to learn, and would have if his teachers had stayed focused on his education and what happened in the classroom. But he did not do his homework, which I understood was a problem that I needed to address.  I was unprepared to learn how powerless I was in deciding what to do. If a problem had happened in the class, I would have readily deferred to the teacher’s judgment. But this was my house, and the authority should have been mine. It was not. I had no power to decide on the best course of action, and as a result, his education went downhill.  In the end, his teachers had authority over me and had the right to fail him, to detain him after school, to detain him on Saturday morning, and to exclude him from sports over my better judgment.

I’m a psychologist, so I started listening to my patients from a new point of view. I began to realize that the bulk of behavioral problems that were brought to my attention were actually homework problems, and that the source of homework noncompliance was not a lack of motivation or deficits in the parents, but learning problems in disguise. By disempowering parents rather than addressing the learning problems, the children acted out at the cost of their educations. Again, homework is a moot point if your child does well, as was the case with my two older children. When there are problems, which I estimate apply, at varying degrees, to 10-25% of all children, the results can be devastating.

There is an important fact about homework that the public does not know, which is that teachers are not adequately trained to give homework. Open a catalogue of any school of education and look for the course called “Homework.” Visit a website that is designed for teachers and see how many articles you find on homework. Look  at the program of a teacher’s conference or convention and see if there are sessions devoted to homework. You’ll be surprised at how little attention teachers give to a  professional technique they regard so highly (and factor heavily into the grade).

The writer of this article bemoans the respect teachers are afforded in comparison to those in other professions.  But don’t we expect that doctors will be trained in the things that they do? I’m a psychologist whose practice consists of therapy and testing. I had courses with titles like “The theories of psychotherapy,” and “The principles of psychological testing.” Ask your child’s teacher at Back to School Night what courses or continuing education he or she had to support the approach to homework that teacher uses.

I think we should respect our teachers and I certainly do. I respect any person who can meet with 20 to 30 children, sustain their attention, maintain order, and teach them the things they need to know. I didn’t choose that field and frankly I don’t think it is something I could do.  I’m frankly awed by teachers.  If they stayed on their turf and focused on the things they were trained to do, I would respect them even more.

Visit The Homework Trap website

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

Wyndmoor Press now offers bulk rate discounts to parent, school, and community groups. We recommend Amazon for single copy purchases.


Anonymous said...

My mother was a teacher for years, she had many problems with TAs seemed to believe that "teacher's assistant" means "teacher's boss", parents stubbornly claiming that their child "don't lie!" When they have been called in to be told about misbehaviour in class and, worst of all, much interference in how she must run the class and homework from MPs with no background or education in the field of teaching.
Many problems that you, and most parents, have with teachers are things that they have not chosen to do, but have been told that they must by someone who has never been either a teacher or a student teacher.
I simply wanted to alert you to that little known fact.

Ken said...

Spot on. I think it is important to understand that teachers are not the problem. Politicians are part of the problem, but the other part of the problem rests with schools of education. Homework is a policy rather than a professionally driven activity. Given the degree to which homework is used and factored in, it is critical that schools of education begin teaching teachers how to use it, and that does not happen.