Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why Do Teachers Get so Defensive?

I read Liam Julian's post "The Martyrs" right before the holiday (yes, I'm a little behind). Though needlessly flippant and condescending, he asks an interesting question: why are teachers so defensive when criticized?

He, specifically, is upset at teachers who dismiss the opinions of others by pointing out that they've never taught (as some teachers recently did to him) and argues that the idea that only teachers can judge other teachers is a logical fallacy. He makes a valid point; it is possible to recognize excellent or poor teaching (and, for that matter, good and bad ideas for a school) without having ever taught.

That said, I'm not sure he really gets to the heart of the issue. Simply saying that a teacher is wrong when they make that argument is at least as unproductive as a teacher making that argument in the first place.

In other words, let's try to find an answer to the question "Why do teachers get so defensive?" other than "they're wrong, so who cares."

I was quite critical of teachers before I started teaching. But now, with the exception of those few who are both truly awful and don't care, I hesitate a bit before I lash out. And I wince about when I hear others lash out.


In my experience, teaching is a very personal pursuit. It requires a lot of an individual. Many people who go into teaching devote more than just time and energy into their teaching -- it's more than just a job to them. It's also much more difficult and nuanced than it looks. I was pretty cocky before I started teaching -- I was convinced that I could sweep in and change the world. And then I discovered about a million things that I never would have anticipated.

I think these two things make teachers quite jumpy when they are criticized. I used to deliver newspapers when I was younger. If somebody had told me I was a bad newspaper boy, I wouldn't have been particularly happy; but it wouldn't have been the end of the world. I simply placed newspapers inside of doors after school and then went back home -- it was something that I did to earn some cash to buy candy and other cool (and worthwhile) stuff rather than a part of my identity.

For many teachers, however, their job is personal. And criticism of the way they do their jobs is seen as criticism of them as people. And nobody takes kindly to that.

Perhaps more important is that anybody who has taught knows that there's more to it than it looks like. When people from the outside criticize teachers, I think it's quite logical to point out that that they don't know the full story. It's a heck of a lot easier to point out what a teacher is doing incorrectly than to actually do it correctly. That doesn't mean that somebody who has never taught can't recognize good teaching and bad teaching, but that their understanding of why a teacher is doing something or what they should do differently lacks nuance.

Lastly, I think there is a mismatch in expectations and rewards for teachers. I'm not sure if the members of any other occupation have such high expectations placed upon them by the public. Your dentist doesn't make the newspaper if they post a picture of themselves in a bikini on their myspace page. Your accountant isn't shunned on the local news if they have a sex-change operation. Teachers are expected to be role models and to conduct themselves with dignity at all times. And yet, teachers may also be criticized more than any other sector of society. In other words, teachers are expected to be perfect, but are treated as second-class citizens in a number of respects.

When somebody pours their heart and sole into a difficult job that commands little respect it shouldn't surprise us when they bristle at criticism.


ms-teacher said...

I came into teaching after working in private industry for almost a decade, then as a public employee for a state senator, and as parent with three children. Believe me, I definitely had an opinion on how education ought to be and couldn't understand why change didn't come about more quickly.

Then, I became a teacher.

One of my former colleagues at my school site had his Ph.D. in mathematics. He decided to become a teacher, but soon became frustrated at the bureaucracy that is the education behemoth. He left teaching after two years because of his frustration with the bureaucracy and his constant struggles with classroom management. He was from India and couldn't believe the lack of respect, on all sides towards teachers and the teaching profession.

People like to think that as teachers we use the line of them not understanding because they've never taught as a cop-out. Your post did an excellent job of stating why that's not the case at all.

Unknown said...


You make a fair point about the intensely personal nature of teaching to many teachers. I can respect and understand that, and I can admit that at times it is easy to attack practices when one doesn't have all of the facts and circumstances. To be sure, a classroom does not exist in a vacuum and there are a plethora of outside influences upon what happens to a teacher and her efforts.

However, I think it is fair to admit that many of the so-called attacks on teachers, particularly those leveled by more 10,000-foot level bloggers like Liam Julian or others are not aimed at teachers on a personal level. Yes, probably less than 1 percent of all teachers in American are "poor" teachers who have no business being in a classroom. However, having said that, it is likewise not fair to take macro-level criticisms of teaching to heart.

My biggest concern about teachers is that while taking things personally, not enough make a personal effort to either 1) educate bloggers like myself in a public forum like blogs or 2) make an effort to change the circumstances they can control in a classroom.

Yes, every worker has conditions imposed upon them, and perhaps teachers more than others. But it is very easy to simply throw one's hands in the air and say, "it is not all my fault, I can't do anything about it." Some conditions cannot be fixed, but some can and I just don't see enough effort, on the micro or macro level to effect those changes.

You do raise a very good point about the "role model" aspect of the job that appears to have gotten out of hand. A bikini photo on a myspace page is not scandalous and to expect our teacher to be moral paragons is unreasonable. But having said that, this is the world we live in and a teacher does need to take personal responsiblity for their actions and maybe think twice about that racy photo posted on a Myspace page. It is wrong to fire a teacher or public brand with a harlot tag, but if you know that a particular consequence is not only likely but almost certain to occur, why not simply avoid the problem all together?

RDT said...

Matt Johnson writes:

However, I think it is fair to admit that many of the so-called attacks on teachers, particularly those leveled by more 10,000-foot level bloggers like Liam Julian or others are not aimed at teachers on a personal level.

That may be true -- but I think that's part of the reason teachers find them so annoying. No one likes to be painted with a mile wide brush or repeatedly used as a strawman in ideologically driven arguments

I also don't follow your argument that teachers don't make an effort to educate bloggers...

First, it seems me there are quite a lot of teachers who blog, and who actively comment on blogs, but in an awful lot of cases blame just gets thrown back at them (and told the are defensive).

Second, it seems to me that if someone is going to write/blog about education, the first thing they would do is immerse themselves in the on-the-ground reality of it, and that would be spending enough time in actual classrooms that they wouldn't need to be educated by their readers.