Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Changing The Teacher Reputation

By on August 21, 2011

I was at a wedding two weeks ago where someone asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a teacher,” I replied.

“Ohhhhh, teeeeeching,” he said knowingly. “Must be nice to have so much time off. Out at 3:00, and only what, 180 days of work? Nice gig.” He laughed in a smarmy manner and returned to his cocktail. I decided for the sake of the newlyweds that his drink must have dictated his manners.

I was getting my eyebrows waxed a few days later, and this clinician whom I have never met before asked what I did. “I’m a teacher,” I replied, wincing as she yanked off the strip of torture. “Ohhhhh, how relaxing that must be,” she said, smiling down at me in a dreamy way. “You know, to just, ahhhhh all day and not have any worries, no stress!” I winced again but opted not to say anything as she spread hot wax along my other brow.

There’s something I find confusing about the phrase “I’m a teacher.” Is it a secret password for “Release the verbal Kraken?” Is it some kind of code that means that not only can you judge my job, but you can also assume that I will find some modicum of humor in your massive misunderstanding of what it takes to do it? Does it give someone immediate allowance to be rude and degrading, losing all sense of etiquette?

After all, if someone had said, “I’m in construction,” I would never assume I knew how hard they worked, how they did their job, or what challenges they faced. If someone had said, “I’m a grip on a TV show,” I would never assume I knew how long they worked vs. how long they were seasonally on hiatus or how they spent their break. If someone had said, “I’m a lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, computer programmer, teller at a bank, waiter, day worker, chef, or even dish washer for said chef,” I would never utter the immediate judgment that may come to mind with each of those jobs. It’s just plain rude.

So what is it about admitting that one teaches that removes all filter of conversational decency from others?

Why is it that talking about teaching opens the door for not only poor judgment of what I do but poor judgment in one’s social manners?

Are teachers so downgraded in people’s minds that we don’t even qualify for polite conversation?

Perhaps in the future, I will keep little folded copies of Taylor Mali’s poem, “What Teachers Make,” in my wallet to pass out silently as people laugh at my expense. Or perhaps I will just harden up, smile, and do the job that people think they know how to do. I’ve written before that people’s assumption that they know about teaching because they’ve been through school is much like saying they must know childbirth because they’ve each been born.

I sigh, because as much I want to rip into those folks who straddle between the realms of good-intentioned-but-stupid and downright passive-aggressive-in-their-contempt, the fact is that truly educating people about teaching will never be about shaking one’s finger at those individuals who don’t get it. It will be about improving practice and promoting that quality. It will be about upping my pedagogy and being unabashed in announcing the hard work I do and the achievements of my students. As I’ve written about before, we must be both teachers and publicists.

And I use “announce” with everything I’ve got. We must stop being modest and quiet with our accomplishments. We must own our abilities, have pride in them, and yodel our victories like the Ricola guy on the mountaintop.

It starts with something small, like adopting a bulletin board on your site. Maybe it’s about tweeting a victory, writing a brief entry into the school newsletter, a submitting a success to the local newspaper.

I challenge you this year to start small in your bragging, not for yourself but for our profession. With enough teachers promoting what we do, with any luck, those who are rude in their anti-teacher sentiment will find no audience for their ignorance.

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