Three reasons people don't trust teachers

Today, the PDK / Gallup Poll released its 46th Annual Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.  A significant finding is that American trust and confidence in teachers declined to 64%, down from 8% in last year’s poll.  Honestly, I didn’t even know this poll came out every year until Monday morning.  In the middle of adjusting to a new school year, I doubt I’ll get around to reading the entire report any time soon.

The drop in public trust toward my profession disappoints me.  At the same time, I understand why.  Sadly, teachers have little control over the factors that can decrease the public’s trust in what good teachers do.

1. Ineffective or Unclear Leadership

Between 2009 and 2012, Chicago Public Schools went through five CEOs (Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, Terry Mazany, Jean Claude-Brizard, Barbara Byrd-Bennett).  This instability made its way to the classroom as policies and expectations changed each time.  The shifts in vision, identity, and political prowess affect the way the public sees teachers—even though we have no influence or input in hiring decisions.

At one family event when a new CEO took over, someone asked me, “How do you like your new boss?”  I replied, “Haven’t met the man and probably never will.”  Many in the public associate us with the leadership the same way the public associated Apple employees with Steve Jobs.  Our leaders, unfortunately, don’t evoke the respect or admiration because of their brief reigns and problematic decisions.  Often, teachers question and disagree with district leaders—after we find out about their actions through the media.

Imprecise communication from the Chicago Teachers Union also tainted the public’s perception of teachers.  Honestly, as I stood on the picket line in 2012, I struggled to articulate why we were striking for the first time in 27 years.  CTU President Karen Lewis mentioned benefits, evaluation, job security, teacher training, air conditioning, class size, and social workers in her statement.

A Washington Post commentary described the strike issues differently.    As we move forward toward another series of contract negotiations, we need to be precise about our demands if we expect the public to trust our professional judgment with labor relations.

2. Inflammatory Education Reporting

I’m not certain exactly when the public became obsessed with education.  Chicago Public Radio, for example, did not have an official education reporter until 2005.  When I was in public school in the 80s, education activists didn’t challenge City Hall the way they do now even though our schools existed in a troubled context.  Now, mostly white activists, many of whom haven’t taught in our schools, appear as regular authorities in the media.  And the media swarms around the non-educators on all sides of the education debate.

Reporters say that teachers don’t want to talk to them.  Of course not.  Journalists can’t expect teachers to voice their criticisms on TV, print, or radio with a reporter they just met and will likely never see again.  If reporters balanced their education coverage with stories of how teachers challenge the status quo in classrooms, teachers might be more open about their views during controversial times.

My own students criticized the media’s intentions with some of their education reporting last school year when all we heard about was CPS students getting shot.  I don’t hear these stories anymore.  Did the violence end?  Or did the fad disappear?

Recently, CPS announced that the district’s class of 2014 earned over $800 million in scholarship offers.  But this didn’t make the front page.  I bet lots of teachers helped students along the way.  But when one newspaper completed a superficial analysis of teacher certification, THAT made the front page and misrepresented the challenges and overlooked the deeper issues of teacher certification.

To be fair, Catalyst-Chicago recently hosted a teacher panel (albeit with all white teachers).  Still, teacher voices in the education conversation are rare.  When the public doesn’t hear from teachers about education issues, they begin to doubt our professional judgment.

3. District Leaders Overwhelm Teachers

When I was in a CPS neighborhood high school in 80s, we saw our grades every five weeks on progress reports or report cards.  When I started teaching in the mid-90s, gradebooks still were not public.  We turned in a list of activities for lesson plans (that no one  really looked at).  We took attendance on paper and if a student misbehaved, we wrote up the incident, ironically, on a Citizenship Card.  The discipline office took it from there.

Good teaching wasn’t easy.  But it’s gotten harder.

Today, a typical Chicago high school teacher has 150 students and must enter 300-450 grades a week (2-3 per student) on a highly public and scrutinized gradebook system.  Our teacher evaluation, while no longer a checklist that mentions bulletin boards, is a time-absorbing exercise that will not help a teacher improve if the administrator lacks instructional expertise.

We have semester unit plans due at the start of the school year.  We need to devise and carry out multiple education plans for a variety of student learning styles.  And let’s not forget the multitude of tests.

If a student misbehaves, the onus is on us to prove the student did something wrong and we must show documentation we attempted—multiple times—to change the students’ behavior.

Still, we’re expected to find time to regularly communicate with parents by phone, email, or in person.  When we’re bogged down with paperwork, we miss phone calls and overlook emails.  Parents begin to lose their trust in us because we are not getting back to them, as I was once instructed, within 48 hours.

I’m disappointed but not surprised by decreased public trust PDK/Gallup Poll.  Trust between good teachers and the public will strengthen when non-educators hear more teacher voices and sincerely consider our expertise.  Then, the public will understand what good teachers do.

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