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.