Much current education reform rests on two complementary premises: the source of America’s education woes is “bad teachers,” and the system will only be saved from their clutches when they are finally rooted out and replaced with “good teachers.”
Los Angeles’ Rafe Esquith seemed the epitome of the good teacher, revealing the extremes to which educators must go to achieve the banner of goodness. He has, for decades, put in twelve-hour days teaching low-income students, providing them with the resources and opportunities usually reserved for rich children.
Esquith’s plight is frightening in part due to its vivid demonstration of the lack of a middle ground upon which teachers can stand. Based on his years of phenomenal service, the man was lauded as a hero and a godsend; based on a single comment, he is treated as a villain and a danger. The shift was swift and ugly.
Speculations swirl. Is he suffering because of a pendulum swing from under-reaction to overreaction to the most hideous of the truly bad teachers—child abusers? Is he being punished for being an outspoken nonconformist? For showing up administrators who don’t work as hard on behalf of children as he does? Is there merit to abuse claims that have arisen during the protracted investigation following his suspension, and was he then—like the good teacher stereotype itself—too good to be true?
Whatever the reason for his fall from grace, Esquith’s situation highlights the nigh impossibility of meeting and maintaining the standard of the good teacher.
It’s easy to see how the bad teacher stereotype hurts the profession; it’s harder to see the damage wrought by the good teacher stereotype. The good teacher goes above and beyond, clocking in long hours and sacrificing for what is not a lifelong profession but a hard-to-sustain cause. Expectations for the good teacher, especially in poor districts, seem to have become unrealistic.
This is in part a result of the so-called Academic Impact Model, which “posits that good teachers can overcome the ailments of socioeconomic disparities if they subscribe to notions of hyper-teacher-accountability.” The University of Illinois’ T. Jameson Brewer studied Teacher for America recruits subjected to this model, demonstrating that it is “this false sense of reality that creates the opportunity for disillusionment and burnout among TFA's corps members.” Teachers at charter schools relying on the model can work 80 to 90-hours a week; some of these schools are finding the resulting high turnover to be costly and are making efforts to address it (though it would seem, not by reducing hours).
My former colleague and talented teacher Amanda Morgan recently wrote about the latter, showing how, in affluent districts as well, teachers suffer from the pressure to martyr themselves by performing at levels that are unsustainable.
Pursuing excellence in a profession should not require spectacular feats of individual heroism. In the end, when teachers are pushed from the classroom by the unrealistic expectations layered upon them, it is students who pay the price.
Anne Lutz Fernandez became a high school English teacher after a career on Wall Street. She is the co-author of Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.