Actor Matt Damon made waves recently at a Save Our Schools rally when he said, “A teacher wants to teach. Why else would you take a sh*tty salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really love to do it?” He was responding to a question about whether job security for teachers made them lazy.
Teaching is a much maligned profession in the United States these days. There is a tendency to dismiss teachers as union lackeys who, once they get tenure, are just marking time before they retire with handsome benefits.
Two myths about teachers contribute greatly to this opinion. The first is that teachers get paid for 12 months despite working for only 10. This myth finds currency especially in bad economic times but can be easily refuted by the simple explanation that the annual salary is just divided into monthly installments.
The second myth, a more pernicious one, is that teaching is a cushy occupation with a shortened workday and terrific holidays. Anyone who has ever personally known a teacher will tell you that this is a ridiculous assertion. My mother taught for several years across different schools, and my lasting memory is of her hunched over her table late into the night, correcting notebooks, grading exam papers, and preparing report cards. Over the summer, teachers in the United States attend training sessions and symposia designed to keep them up to date with developments in education. The American teacher often spends her own money to decorate the classroom and fill it with supplies.
The same unions we deride today for their inflexibility and defense of tenure made teaching a possible career for people who genuinely love kids. Yes, I have come across the rare teacher who is burnt out and still on the job because of pension or retirement calculations.
But my children’s teachers have been, by and large, inspirational, lovable, hard-working, and flexible. They deal with allergies, behavioral problems, special needs, neglectful parents, intrusive parents, and budget cuts on a daily basis and do it with a smile on their face. Even in the India of two decades ago, I had teachers who inspired me, recognized my potential, and urged me to dream big.
As I prepare to send my children back to school next week, I am confident that I am entrusting them to talented educators who only have their best interests at heart. The education system in the United States may not be perfect, and there may be some merit to the clamor to reform teacher hiring and firing practices but, to me, the individual teacher is an unsung hero.