As teachers, my wife and I had the privilege of leading St. Olaf College’s Global Semester — a five-month circumnavigation of the world with 28 students. Along the way we studied history, politics, religion and art, in places as diverse as Cairo, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Seoul. The Global Semester is an academic program, and we had many smart and engaging teachers on it: from scholars to artists, tour guides to priests. Around the world, we were continually impressed with our teachers’ erudition and wit, and their eagerness to discuss the burning issues of the day.
Above all, we were struck by the respect accorded us as teachers. I’m not talking about the kind of respect that comes from having three degrees, or a title such as doctor or professor. I’m talking about a respect for educators founded on a deep and abiding faith in education itself.
In the United States, I regret that we do not routinely feel as respected as teachers as we did while abroad, especially in India, China and South Korea. While it’s not that we always feel disrespected at home, discussion of education in the United States today is commonly a discourse about decreasing standards, poor test results and a lack of global competitiveness for which teachers are blamed. Globally, it was strange to experience societal norms that associate teachers with the highest cultural values.
To be honored as teachers by those who had never been in our classrooms felt like unearned praise, compelling our humility even as we enjoyed the special attention. One day in India, I held the door for a group of schoolchildren who steadfastly refused to go through it before me. As the kids and I playfully repeated, “No, you first,” a woman came along and told me I would have to go through the door first. “There is no way they are going to go through that door before you,” she said. “You are a teacher.”
Frankly, my wife and I are blessed with good jobs and have no reason to complain personally about a lack of respect. Still, it’s clear that it is not merely a rhetorical shift that teachers in the United States are increasingly regarded as service providers and students as clients. As education is conceptualized as a commodity, all schools are adjusting curricula and methods to reflect market-based rankings and ratings. It is unlikely that this movement will engender a greater respect for education as teachers are reduced to competing as brands.
The lack of respect shown to teachers in the United States devalues the teaching profession. Recruitment and retention in the field are always challenging and may become even more so. As one of my students who is working on her teaching licensure put it, “Going into teaching today requires my last residue of romanticism.”
While an unshakable idealism has always been prerequisite to the teaching life, it must now be tempered by a cool pragmatism, cognizant of the pressures of pushy parents, bankrupt districts, embattled unions and a 24/7 political campaign in which teachers are represented as the bad guys. One young American, currently teaching in Beijing, observed, “Teaching anywhere in America is just a job. Teaching anywhere in China is an honorable profession.”
Perhaps it is too much to ask in America, as an ancient Sanskrit phrase goes: Acharya devo bhavo, or, “Treat your teacher as you would treat God.” Perhaps, as Americans, we are too invested in the ideology of the “self-made man” to see education as collaboration, engaging our best qualities as teachers, parents and students in mutually respectful ways. Perhaps we have become lazy and complacent, content to outsource not only the most demanding tasks of parenting but also those aspects of education we find difficult and not immediately gratifying.
Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India during our travels and a longtime teacher, said, “Through teachers flow the values and culture of a nation and its people.”
If we believe this, we must restore confidence in and respect for teachers in the United States. Otherwise, it is certain we will be taught a lesson, the hard way, by the rest of the world.
William Sonnega is director of media and film studies at St. Olaf College.