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Teaching Without Authority

We need to restore the authority of teachers so that students in their charge will become competent and mature adults.

At a recent “Dash for Cash” event in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, participating teachers were caught on video scrambling for five thousand $1 bills that they would use for school supplies. Instead of working together and divvying out the money, the teachers competed with one another, putting on a show for audiences to gawk at.

Even for the most contemptuous critics of public school teachers, the scene is difficult to watch. Grown adults charged with educating American youth were on their hands and knees, stuffing cash into their clothes to pay for things they needed to do their jobs. The whole spectacle was obscene.

Progressives were appalled by the very idea of teachers needing to collect more money to do their jobs, let alone participate in an infantile event like “Dash for Cash.” Rob Abcarian sums up this view, declaring, “The stunt was in terrible taste, for sure, but it also encapsulated in one sickening moment much of what is awry with how we fund (or dont fund) public education.” Evidently, public education is underfunded in South Dakota, and this compels teachers to do whatever they can to scrape up more money.

While this is true in some cases, this view overgeneralizes the situation in the majority of public school districts. The money is there, teacher salaries are much better on average than they were in the past, and the teachers and students at public schools are well supplied—with many districts even issuing laptops to every student. As much as I’d love a hefty raise, lavishing more money on public schools will not automatically improve the quality of learning at public school.

The real issue here is the lack of respect for educators. How are the teachers who participated in “Dash for Cash” supposed to be taken seriously by their students? Even though they had the most altruistic motives, they still made fools of themselves. Was it really worth it?

Sadly, this undignified view of teachers has become routine, and the event at Sioux Falls symbolizes this fact. In too many districts, educators are asked to debase themselves on a daily basis. Instead of crawling on the floor for $1 bills, however, they are collecting a salary for babysitting and entertaining children.

Although it was always somewhat true that teachers seemed to serve the community more by keeping unruly kids off the street than by educating them and preparing them for adulthood, this role has become even more pronounced in recent years. More parents were upset at the school shutdowns not because their children would suffer academically, but because there was no one who could watch their kids while they went to work.

For this reason, even as students return to school with severe deficits in their learning, the main goal of most schools has been to accommodate them by removing any and all academic and behavioral expectations. Not only do these (usually low) expectations burden them with more stress than they can handle, but they also result in intolerable inequities between different racial groups.

As such, teachers now lack the authority to be real educators. They cannot fail anyone, criticize anyone, or even send out anyone who misbehaves. Rather, they’re told to “build relationships” with disruptive students by not punishing them, and “affirm” students with learning gaps by giving them high grades and endless attempts to redo assignments.

This is a major shift from how teaching used to be. In a moving essay about his father, who taught high school English decades ago, Jeremy Adams, a teacher himself, remarks on this change: “In this educational cosmos, my father would be an unwelcome alien. Or, to be blunt, he would probably be seen as an unsympathetic, pugilistic, classroom ‘Boomer.’” The teachers of previous generations had the necessary authority to do their jobs; teachers today do not.

As a result, teachers have ceased being professionals and have become mere employees. They clock in and out, follow their script, and keep the assembly line of kids moving along. Their success depends on how well they conform to the system, not on how well they can teach.

Even though additional funding is not going to fix this issue by itself, the misallocation of funds does play a role in diminishing teachers’ authority. When the state and local governments in South Dakota pay relatively low salaries to their teachers and ask them to buy their own classroom supplies, they are signaling to everyone that they have little regard for their educators.

Rather than dumping money indiscriminately into every public school district, a better solution, more consistent with conservative principles, would be to reward good, hardworking teachers with higher pay. If Americans value what good teachers do, they need to show it with actual cash (not $1 bills strewn on a hockey rink) and stop mouthing patronizing platitudes about the “noble work” teachers do.

This obviously happens with other professions: good doctors, lawyers, and engineers are compensated with higher salaries. Not only is this an incentive for better work and more of it; it is also an objective token of value and esteem for the work being done.

Without that value and esteem, there can be no authority. And without that authority, there can be no order, which should worry everyone. It’s one of the main reasons why violence is increasing in schools nationwide and the Lord of the Flies is becoming an increasingly relevant text for today’s students.

Kids now have few people to look up to because everyone is either at their level or below them. Some may mistakenly view this as empowering, but it’s quite the opposite: leadership and independence only become possible when one learns how to take direction and knows his place. When children fail to learn these lessons, even the basic responsibilities associated with adulthood become near impossible.

It is therefore imperative for Americans to stop making public education synonymous with universal childcare. The grotesque sight in Sioux Falls should serve as a wakeup call. We need to restore the authority of teachers so that students in their charge will become competent and mature adults. Right now, we are training and forcing teachers to act like clowns. And although clowns are cheaper and more entertaining on the whole, they are clowns all the same, not educators.

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American ThinkerCrisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.