Labor Pains

The timing of the Labor Day, the holiday created to celebrate the American labor Labor-Daymovement, with the return to school of one of the most picked-upon occupations in our society, teachers, does not escape me.

As reported over the summer in the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles,

As true believers in education, Jews have served as teachers and professors, as well as active parents watching fretfully over the public schools — even those that are not widely attended by Jewish students.  Jews have voted overwhelmingly in favor of school expenditures.  As beliefs in science and education have been challenged on the right, Jews have strongly retained loyalty to their heritage of intellectual inquiry from the European Enlightenment.

Politically, the Jewish community historically worked hard to support teachers and, in doing so, public teacher unions (and unions in general).  However, in recent years as educational reform movements have begun to take hold, a genuine debate has broken out within the Jewish community (as in the larger American community) about the balance between protecting the rights of teachers and serving the needs of students.  [I realize that those do not have to be opposites.]  Fractures and fissures of support have burst open.


As a practical issue – for better or for worse – this will likely cease to be an actual issue in the Jewish day school world as there are less than a handful of unionized schools left.  That does not mean that those of us charged with running schools or networks of schools do not have responsibility for supporting, elevating and professionalizing the field.  Union or no union, our schools are only going to be as good as our teachers.

Because as much as this particular debate in our society has to do with the costs of public education, the brush being painted of the teaching profession tars all – public, private, charter, and alternative.

And I think it does real damage.

The truth is that if we ever want to get serious about new forms of education (not reform, but new forms) we will need to hold the teaching profession in high regard.  I don’t know how tearing it down can lead to anything productive.  No one goes into education for the money.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t well-compensated educators (and by the by, why would there be something wrong with that?), but those whose sole purpose in choosing a profession is making money surely do not choose to be teachers.

Teaching is noble, but not all teachers may be noble.  I am not naive.  There should be accountability in teaching and I don’t pretend to know how to address that in a unionized school.  It is hard enough to do in a private school without unionized teachers.  But I do know that whatever legitimate frustration there is about a lack of accountability ought not delegitimate the entire profession.

I wrote in one my earliest blog posts of my belief that teaching is a sacred profession.

I mean that literally; I believe that teaching is a religious act.

I believe this to be true of all teaching – not the teaching of religious subjects or by religious people – but, that an inner-city math lesson is as much a religious act as is a Rabbinics class in a Jewish day school.  Because so much of teaching is relational (with your students, your parents, your colleagues, etc.) and because in order to relate you must acknowledge the divine in others, I really believe that teaching is in and of itself “religious”.  [You can substitute “spiritual” if it makes you more comfortable.]  I do not think it is an accident that many teachers consider their work a “calling” and not a “career”.

And so on this Labor Day weekend, to the teachers who have been called and the parents who partner with them, I offer words from one of my most favorite books on teaching by Maria Harris:

One of the great sorrows in human life is the discovery, too late, of our own beauty and of the beauty of much that we do. Such is often the case with teachers, as we contemplate ourselves and our vocation. At the deepest level, every teacher wants to become a better teacher, even a great teacher; in moments of insight, every teacher is aware of hidden gifts of creativity and imagination.

But often the pressures, deadlines, and exigencies of dailiness keep teachers from standing back and viewing their work with the care both they and their work deserve. Often when there might be times at faculty meetings or on in-service days, demands for the newest, the latest, and the updated can get in the way and preclude the possibility of standing back, of being still and recalling the excitement and lure which drew us to teaching in the first place.

We need an arena, a context, and an occasion to contemplate our teaching and to recover, if we have lost them, the dreams and the hopes, the vision and the grandeur that lie at the core of teaching. We need an opportunity to rediscover the creative, artistic teachers we are and were meant to be.

I hope teaching in our schools provide just that opportunity.