When I was a child, every school year began the same way for me. At the end of the first day, my brothers came home with a long list of complaints about their teachers. Much to my surprise, my mother, who has never been known to be a patient person, listened attentively. Then in the most serious tone she could muster, she said, “Well, you had better get used to your teachers because you have them for the whole year.”
After that warning, my mother never entertained any discussion on the matter until the first day of the following school year. I now understand that this was my mother’s greatest gift to our education. With that one, firm statement, she ended any possibility of her children playing off teachers against parents.
I have no doubt that we could have gone to our parents if any teacher acted abusive in any unacceptable manner, but my mother’s message had been crystal clear: Respect your teachers. Listen to them. You don’t go to school to make friends with your teachers. They are not there to entertain you. You go to school to learn from them.
Teachers had permission to discipline us without contacting our parents. (We prayed they would not contact my mother because no teacher could devise a punishment for disobeying a teacher that could match my mother’s.)
As students, we accepted that teachers did what they needed to do to maximise their teaching time. This I always understood. What I am beginning to realise now, as I look back on my mother’s firm resolve on the issue, is that my mother was really saying that we are responsible for our own education.
She must have known — as we knew — that some teachers were better than others. Some devised more exciting lessons. Some were nice; others were grumpy. (I will forever remember Miss Long, a teacher, who decided to ruin her reputation as a fun teacher by going on a diet when I had her in fifth grade). But it was up to us to study hard and learn — even in those years when we did not have the best of teachers.
Somewhere along the line — especially when helicopter parents flew into the picture — we lost respect for teachers. We suddenly began making value judgments about teachers’ personalities or teaching styles. Strict but fair teachers became overshadowed by “fun” teachers, who often overlooked discipline. Students suddenly possessed the ability to undermine a teacher’s authority by playing off parents against teachers.
While parents attacked teachers (sometimes literally speaking) and teachers fought to defend themselves, students began to lose valuable ground in their education.
This is not to say that teachers should never be questioned and that there should be no accountability for delinquent teachers who are not performing up to scratch. What it is saying is that we need to allow teachers to do their jobs, and we need to stop the senseless undermining of teachers who perform. Teachers are professionals and we must trust that they know what they are doing unless we have overwhelming proof that they don’t.
Parents need to hold their own children accountable for their behaviour in school. Students need to understand that they need to listen to teachers, complete assignments and be respectful in class, and they can’t gloss over their poor behaviour simply by criticising a teacher to deflect from their own wrongdoing.
There is something to learn from every teacher — even the ones who are not the most engaging. This I learned long ago from my mother’s lesson on taking teachers seriously.