Monday, June 04, 2012

The Worth of Children

Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press
Mike Thompson's incisive cartoon about the contradictions between pro-child and anti-teacher rhetoric arrives just as the two sides are coming to a showdown in an unthinkably bitter recall election in Wisconsin.

Locally, teachers in the town of Abington recently decided to curtail voluntary activities after all other efforts to negotiate a contract had failed. I know from my own limited experience with this kind of "work to rule" action that it is difficult for most educators to limit themselves to the work for which they are actually paid. The intent, of course, is to help administrators to see just how much is done on a voluntary basis, with the hope that this will result in more reasonable offers for the work that is done for pay.

I recall a discussion as we considered such an action a number of years ago on my own campus. (We are almost always without settled contracts in Massachusetts, as disregarding higher-education seems to be a bipartisan sport of long standing, but we only take action in especially egregious circumstances.) As we discussed whether or not to skip graduation ceremonies, a colleague argued that we should do our best to shield students from our conflict with the Board of Higher Education.

In that moment, my own thinking on the question shifted. I had seen students as potential victims in the crossfire between faculty and our governing body, but I realized that the opposite was true. When schools and teachers are underfunded or treated with disrespect by state and local governments, they are caught in the crossfire between politicians and students.

And then I remembered something I heard years ago from a scholar who had recently returned from a research trip to Scandinavia. She reported realizing that the United States is really a country that hates children (and young adults, too, it seems). Our rhetoric, of course, is pro-child, and as individuals we would do anything for our children. Even anti-government nihilist Grover Norquist is indulgent with his own daughters.

Our collective deeds, however, all too often reflect a distaste for the children of others. We are indeed fortunate that teaching, social work, and child care continue to attract those who hold children and youth in higher esteem than the value implied by the typical pay for these professions.

Through my EarthView program and other activities, I work with enough teachers to know that there are some exceptions -- teachers who really should not be working with children. But in my experience these are rare. Most teachers I meet do amazing work with children (or youth or adults), despite the incredible barriers to teaching that are imposed by politicians, and despite pay rates below those of their non-teaching peers.

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