Randi Weingarten Can’t Get No Respect

In what the AFT web site described as “her first major speech since being elected AFT president in July,” Randi Weingarten “decried the widespread scapegoating of teachers and teachers unions for public education’s shortcomings.”  Her comments have generated numerous reactions, including from NYT columnist Bob Herbert, Andy Rotherham, Joanne Jacobs, and our own Greg Forster.  They all raised interesting points, but none addressed one of the most curious aspects of Weingarten’s speech:  Why do teachers, perhaps more than other professionals, seek praise for their work (or are particularly sensitive to blame)? 

I don’t think other occupations have produced bumper-stickers that are the equivalent of “If you can read this thank a teacher.”  I can’t imagine plumbers distributing bumper-stickers that said: “If you flushed your toilet thank a plumber.”  Nor can I imagine: “If you still have your teeth thank a dentist.” 

Teachers particularly demand respect — and of course they deserve respect.  But why do they give speeches, print bumper-stickers, write letters, hold rallies, etc… decrying their social status when I am hard pressed to think of other occupations that do the same?

Of course, one important factor is that almost all teachers are public employees.  The demand for respect can be understood as part of the demand for resources.  My plumber doesn’t have to demand my respect to get my resources.  He just has to do a good job to get me to continue paying him for his services. 

But the resources devoted to education are largely unrelated to how well teachers serve their students.  Political popularity largely determines the level of resources available for teachers, so not surprisingly, teachers actively lobby the public to enhance their image.

The problem is that it is hard to sustain political popularity and community respect as results continue to disappoint despite huge increases in resources.  Teachers interpret this disappointment as a lack of respect, when it is really just frustration at being forced to pay for services that are chronically inadequate.  If people could hire teachers like they hire plumbers or dentists, teachers wouldn’t need to demand respect to get resources.  They would earn respect and resources by serving their voluntary customers well.

9 Responses to Randi Weingarten Can’t Get No Respect

  1. Ryan says:

    Out of curiosity, if I can read the bumper sticker in question should I not also thank my optometrist? And assuming I’m driving the car following your car, my driver’s ed instructor (for myself my older brother and parents, but in many of my friends’ cases an insurance company employee, not a teacher)?

  2. Brian says:

    The other occupations that do this that I can think of are military related, and to some lesser extent police and fire services. Perhaps this fits with your public employee reasoning.

    Here’s another bumper sticker for your consideration:


  3. rpondiscio says:

    There’s not a lot of mystery as to why teachers are praise-seeking creatures. I have often said that teaching is the easiest job in the world to be badly, but the hardest job in the world to do well. And for those who take it on, especially in hard-to-staff schools, who do their damndest and go home with tire tracks on their backs most days, it takes an extraordinary degree of commitment and patience to get to a place where you are being effective. I don’t want to sound like I’m waiving the bloody shirt, but I don’t know if it’s possible to fully appreciate how exhausting and dispiriting it can be to teach in a failing school unless you’ve done it. A bit of praise for taking on one of society’s most difficult and frustrating jobs doesn’t seem a particularly high price. At the end of the day, people need a reason to get out of bed. You can do so to make a boatload of dough, or to feel like you’re doing something to change the world a bit. Respect is obviously something that is earned, obviously, not negotiated in collective bargaining. But a little appreciation doesn’t cost much, and it goes a long way. Perhaps the “support the troops” mindset is what is needed. You might find fault with the war was conceived and executed, but the grunts don’t bear the weight of our disappointment. I’d argue the same should be true of teachers.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    But teachers get a lot more than “a little appreciation.” They get endless praised heaped upon them all day long, such that anyone who merely points out that teachers are human beings like everybody else is accused of “demonizing” teachers, and yet the AFT is still not satisfied. The more praise teachers get, the more the AFT complains that teachers are underappreciated.

    Not that we analyze our opponents’ motives here at Jay P. Greene’s Blog, but that’s classic inferiority complex behavior.

  5. rpondiscio says:

    Damn. I must have missed that endless praised heaped on me all day. Wait, maybe it’s underneath that mountain of complaints, regulations and paperwork. Seriously, I’m not going to carry the AFT’s water here, but I think it’s important to differentiate union rhetoric from the day-to-day experience of the classroom teacher. If you do the job well, it kicks your ass, plain and simple, all day every day. It’s not hard to get to a very dark place where you think you’re going it alone and the cavalry’s not coming. I consider my reformist credentials to be in pretty good order, but I’m keenly aware that a lot of the school reform rhetoric does carry implicit, and sometimes explicit criticism of teachers. If there’s another job that carries such a disproportionate ratio of expectation to reward, I’d like to know what it is. Mind you, I’m not suggesting a pity party for teachers. No one’s holding a gun to their heads. But neither should you diminish the very real difficulty of doing the job. As every teacher knows, a little positive reinforcement goes a long way.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Of course I didn’t mean that each individual teacher gets praise heaped on him or her all day long. But in the public discourse, endless priase is heaped on teachers in general all day long. And it’s the public discourse that Randi Weingarten and Bob Herbert were addressing in the diatribes that started this conversation. If you want to change the subject and talk about something else, that’s fine – obviously teaching is a hard job, just like pretty much every other job is, and individual experiences will vary considerably. Contrary to your suggestion, I didn’t “diminish the very real difficulty of doing the job.” Randi Weingarten and Bob Herbert made a specific claim – that in the public discourse, teachers were being “demonized” and blamed unfairly for educational failure. My comments were directed at those claims.

  7. rpondiscio says:

    Sorry, Greg. When you said “why do teachers, perhaps more than other professionals, seek praise for their work,” I made the mistake of assuming you were referring to…um…er…teachers. I didn’t realize I was changing the subject by talking about “teachers.” I don’t see any reason to escalate this. I take your point, but I hope you take mine: there are teachers, and there are teachers unions. They are not interchangeable terms. So care ought to be taken when slinging that broad brush. And while it’s surely an exaggeration to talk about the demonization of teachers, let’s not pretend that it doesn’t exist. As is invariably the case, there’s plenty of middle ground between the two extremes.

  8. Brian says:

    rpondiscio has a valid point, even if we keep the debate within the confines of what occurs “in the public discourse.” To use popular portrayals as an example, attitudes toward teachers often sit at the extremes–there’s the really bad or strict teachers that everyone loves to hate (think “Bueller…Bueller” or “Don’t mess with the bull young man, you’ll get the horns”) and the really good ones that everyone fawns over (think “O Captain my captain”). Again, they seem to have a lot in common with police and soldiers as far as how they are treated in the venue of public perception. You got your Serpicos and your Mark Furmans, your Barnes and your Elias.

    Now everyone can show off that they get the references, like they did when a character from The Emperor’s New Groove appeared in a different post. : )

    Come to think of it, though, principals and deans are always bad when it comes to pop culture portrayals…except in Lean on Me, I suppose. Damn you Morgan Freeman and your level-headed ways!!!!!

  9. Greg Forster says:

    I didn’t say that. Jay did.

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