Decreased Respect for Education and Educators

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Tue, 11/21/2017 - 13:47

Ask most in my generation what would have happened when our parents learned that we’d misbehaved at school, and the answer is the same. What the teacher said held much greater weight than our versions of the stories, and for good reason. We respected our teachers because our parents respected our teachers, our community leaders respected our teachers, and our state and federal governments respected our teachers.
As with any other profession, there are and will always be “bad” teachers, but they do not comprise the majority like the media, movies, and politicians make it seem. I can think of no other profession whose members are more important than teachers in the preparation of young minds for the challenges they will face and the opportunities they will be given as adults. And yet, I can also think of no other profession whose members have been more maligned, bad mouthed, and verbally abused.

Let any one of us have virtually any other problem in an arena about which we know very little, and we seek the advice of professionals in the field—doctors, lawyers, bankers, business and financial advisors, realtors, plumbers. Teachers and other school professionals used to be among them. That is, until about three decades ago, and reports like “A Nation At Risk” appeared on the scene. When the fear-mongering and political manipulation of the public dialogue began to increase, respect and honor for teachers in our society began to erode.

Here are some of the reasons I believe the erosion of respect for teachers and the profession itself began.

Written and Unwritten Rules

We are a society of rules. They are a given, providing both protection for all of us and clear guidance for boundaries between us, including the consequences when those rules are violated. Those rules are both written and unwritten.

The written rules are generally straightforward, such as laws of the highway and rules of procedure that must be followed in school, in the workplace, and in general. But the unwritten rules and behaviors must also be learned and practiced in our society to ensure healthy relationships and productivity, and they influence whether or not we interact with each other in a respectful way. Obedience of the written rules and the consequences for failure to obey them are equally straightforward, but in the end, the unwritten rules can have greater impact on a person’s success in life.

In school, it is true that most children understand the written rules and expectations for behavior. But if the rules are unwritten, how do they learn what they are? Through the actions of our parents, through stories, through what they see in the media.

If someone is disrespectful to friends, family, co-workers, and supervisors, the results are not pleasant—abandonment, divorce, job termination, prison. And yet…I listen to colleagues and am amazed at how many tell me that while talking with parents, they have been yelled at, challenged, and called names. Trust me, I understand that parents are emotional when talking about their children, but when did such behavior become acceptable in a parent teacher conference or conversation? I have been in conferences with parents whose interactions with me were like one of the “reality” shows where “non-actors” yell at each other. Have we reached a point where television defines how parents interact with the people who—second only to us—have the greatest influence on our kids?

I hear children tell their friends the negative comments their parents made about teachers at home. I’ve had students defy simple requests for them to comply with classroom rules, all the while sure that if I call their parents, the parents will defend them without consideration of the misbehavior of their children. I remember calling a parent to report that their child was in a fight and hit another child in the face only to have them tell me “their child would never do that.” This, despite the fact that I was the one who saw the fight and broke it up myself.

I don’t care if a parent doesn’t like me or disagrees with what I say, but I do care if the communication of that disagreement undermines my authority in the classroom. Why? Because it renders me even more unable to present the knowledge and skills the child needs to do well. Do you listen to people you don’t respect?

By Tim Mullen, PhD

Teacher and author of “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” (