With all the distrust and conflict surrounding the Chicago Public Schools' list of school closings and the rancorous debates over class sizes and public pensions in the state of Illinois, it's no surprise that the organizations that represent teachers have amped up their public-relations campaigns. Teachers cannot afford to let themselves be demonized as self-interested political figures. Not in the current climate. In all debates surrounding public education, the cultivation of public sympathy is crucial.
In one current radio ad from the Illinois Education Association, which represents more than 133,000 teachers and other education professionals from kindergarten specialists to university professors, upbeat teachers talk about how "we do it for the kids" and how their working conditions are a child's learning conditions. In the most striking section of the ad, which has been airing frequently during rush hours on WBBM radio, one teacher describes the joys of walking into the classroom every day and encountering a room filled to the brim with eager learners. "My students are amazing," says the voice. "They come in eager every day. They are just a joy for me to teach."
I imagine a lot of teachers are rolling their eyes at that Pollyanna-ish notion as they make their bleary-eyed commutes, understandably worried about their pensions.
While there are well-motivated students in every school — even the ones called "failing" — no teacher I know spends his or her entire day in the warm embrace of the eager learner, soaking up wisdom like a sponge and hanging on the instructor's every word. If it were that easy, everyone would teach. In actuality, teaching is a whole lot more difficult. Sometimes dangerously so.
For a look at the realities of life in an urban school, one might take in "The Knowledge," a play (at the Steep Theatre on Chicago's North Side) written by John Donnelly, a former teacher. In this stark yet darkly humorous drama, a young, newly qualified teacher finds herself in a failing school, teaching the most difficult group of students, all from impoverished backgrounds. They're a needy, intermittently sympathetic crew, but there's not an eager learner in the bunch. These students are angry, depressed and juvenile. Taken together, they create the kind of hostile, sexually aggressive work environment that those in other professions would immediately take to a lawyer, the police or both.
And yet the young teacher at the center of this storm, a smart, well-meaning woman bereft of the resources and support she needs because she works in a huge, dysfunctional bureaucracy full of people protecting their own flanks, knows full well what will happen if she makes that choice. She'll scar these scared young people with criminal records and likely send them off in a direction from which they will never recover. And so she keeps calm and carries on.
Until she can't. Donnelly's teacher is not one of the smooth-talking ideal teachers in that advertisement. She's flawed. She cracks under pressure. She makes terrible mistakes. But she stays in the classroom, even though it seems to threaten to eat her soul alive. She would make lousy copy for a radio ad and will never win a Golden Apple award. But she is a teacher.
A different but equally formidable challenge for teachers comes up in "Collected Stories," another fine (and less shocking) play about the perils of devoting your life to education. In this very literate Donald Margulies drama, produced in Chicago by the American Blues Theater, a university teacher spends most of her professional life trying to help young people become better writers — sharing with them her techniques, her skills, her art and (perhaps most important of all) her contacts and imprimatur.
But as we all do, the teacher gets older and, as these things so often go in professions from media to technology to finance, attention starts to turn more to the next hot young thing. The very hot young thing whom our professor has been teaching at the expense of her own career. With notable alacrity, this play homes in on how teaching — serious teaching at least — will never attract the wholly selfish, for the very act requires a subjugation of self.
Here too, the teacher is no altruistic sweetheart: She rants and raves as she sees what is happening, she questions her life choices, she demands the kind of loyalty that no student should ever be asked to give and she does the kinds of things teachers do when they feel they are not being respected. She struggles to see that, for an educator, the satisfactions of life are far more likely to come through the achievements of others. But she is a teacher.
A life of professional selflessness is a hard pill for anyone to swallow in today's competitive meritocracy, with a reward system skewed in a different direction. Don't be fooled by massaged images of educators who find all this easy and bound into their classrooms. Most do not. But the truth is not the enemy of the Illinois Education Association: A few advertisements about just how darn hard it can be to teach might well serve its cause.