A [Professional] Love Letter to K-12 Teachers

I don’t know how you do it. When I was 19, I decided to become a middle school Language Arts teacher. My fondest memories of my K-12 schooling are from middle school. I recognize this is an anomaly as most people detested middle school (especially women). But I LOVED it. I was the queen bee. Well, I was the princess bee; my best friend was the queen. But suffice it to say I was at the top of the social hierarchy and that made my experience awesome.

I eventually decided against that career path solely for financial reasons. Even at the age of 19, I knew a teacher’s salary would not be sufficient to pay off my undergraduate loans. So I said to myself: self, how can I teach and make more money?  And it came to me. Be a college professor.

So I did. I am. And through my research in K-12 public schools, I have learned one very important fact: I greatly admire K-12 teachers.

This will probably be easiest to relay numerically. Here is a list of the reasons (in no particular order) why I am constantly in awe of teachers:

1)  K-12 teachers have no control over the curriculum. Public school curriculum is state mandated. Private college curriculum is professor decided. I love that I decide what content is important, what is less important, the order in which we address content, blah blah. It takes a knowledgeable person to make coherent sense of a state designed curriculum binder. I don’t think I’d have the patience.

2) K-12 teachers deal with a lot of student attitude. Students come to class with a lot of attitude. So many students don’t want to be there, but because it’s the law, they have to go to school. And because the state says so, they have to take particular classes. So they sit there, looking disinterested, doing off task things, and generally negatively affect the classroom climate. I find it extremely disrespectful when students sleep in class, are on their computers or cell phones in class, or are obviously inattentive. When any of these things occur, I ask students to leave. But K-12 teachers can’t do that (well, they aren’t encouraged to do that. And if they did, what good would that do?). So they must suffer the hurt and frustration of knowing they are not reaching every student, for reasons far beyond their control.

3) K-12 teachers have no say about who is in their class. It’s the first day. You see who shows up. You hope the students in the class are actually the same students listed on the roster. You pray the students are reading and writing at grade level. Ok, you will take just reading at grade level. On the contrary, private college professors have something called ‘Consent of Instructor’ which basically means, if I want to ensure my students have sufficient background knowledge in this content, I can designate my course COI so I have to give individual permission for every student to enroll. Of course this is after I review their transcript and conduct a brief informal interview. This is how I maintain control over….

4) K-12 teachers have no choice but to differentiate instruction. Because students come to school with highly variable prior educational experiences, their academic abilities are highly variable. K-12 teachers are forced to accommodate so many different ability levels, it boggles my mind. I have to do that when my courses don’t have prerequisites (which I immediately remedy) and it drives me crazy. Much respect to skilled teachers who can teach a class of 30 students functioning at 12 different levels across 6 domains.

5) K-12 teachers differentiate instruction with very little external resources. Any person who has gone through public school has experienced the short supply of well, everything. Not enough textbooks. Outdated textbooks. Not enough desks. Broken desks. The library doesn’t have enough books. There is no library. The computer lab is booked for the next year. There are only 3 computers in the school. The list goes on. Teachers dig in their shallow pockets to fund their career. They pay to copy, print, get materials for a special project. Teachers in low income schools often keep clothing and snacks in their classroom for students in need. Meanwhile, I take for granted that I can design a course around the fact that every student will need to purchase SPSS for their personal computer. And if they don’t, they either can’t enroll in my course or will have to use the very fancy computers found in almost every building on campus. And after you install this pricy software, make sure you start researching your final paper via the College’s extensive access to databases. And if we don’t have the article you want, just fill out an InterLibraryLoan request and you will have it within a few days. How do K-12 teachers teach with no resources? I am truly baffled. And impressed.

6) K-12 teachers can rarely track student growth over time. Students enter their classrooms for a semester or an academic year and then they leave. In good school districts with accurate records, teachers can—in all their spare time—review students’ files. But once they leave for the year, it’s very difficult to track their progress once they enter someone else’s class. I, on the other hand, log into our online platform, access students’ transcripts, and if necessary, email their prior professors to get a ‘sense’ of that student. When a student struggles academically, I can contact advisors, deans, and counselors at the stroke of a key. At my small college, I can follow my students through graduation to stay apprised of their progress. At the end of every course I am slightly saddened to be losing ‘my kids’. I don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t have a high chance of running into them in the cafeteria, seeing them at campus events, or of having them in class again. Kudos to K-12 teachers for the strength they must have to let go.

7) K-12 teachers have little opportunity to focus on skill development. In the current age of accountability, all teachers have time to do is focus on standardized test scores. There is so much riding on students’ scores (oftentimes teachers’ future employment status), that teachers are forced to shove more and more content down students’ throats—even when they may lack the academic skills necessary to comprehend that content. The bureaucracy affecting teachers’ every move is absurd. How can they do their jobs when their hands and feet are tied?

I could go on forever, but these are the ones that cross my mind almost every day. One of my favorite quotes is from David Berliner where he states: Easy-to-do science is what those in physics, chemistry, geology, and some other fields do. Hard-to-do science is what the social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational researchers do. We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building–problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences.

I feel this way when comparing what K-12 teachers do and what college professors do. Teachers work under conditions professors find intolerable. They face particular problems and must deal with issues that limit their effectiveness. Teachers are under appreciated, under valued, and under supported. They are the ones who occupy central positions in children’s lives, yet they are treated as peripheral bystanders.

Teachers deserve more autonomy, more trust, more choice, more resources, more respect, and certainly more pay. But most of all, teachers deserve more thanks.

Thank you for all you do.