Education Opportunity Network

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Why Chris Christie Hates Teachers

What was the most surprising thing about New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie’s recent remark that the “national teachers union” deserves a “punch in the face?”

Certainly not that he made the remark. As multiple news outlets reporting on the comment note, Christie “has had several public confrontations with individual teachers.”

No, what was most surprising was how tepid the response has been from anyone but members of the teachers’ unions themselves.

In contrast to the “firestorm,” according to The Washington Post, that Jeb Bush, also a Republican presidential candidate, ignited after he said he was “not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” Christie’s remark doesn’t appear to have received a strong rebuke from prominent commentators or representatives of the Democratic Party. Although Bush’s comment has been called a “gaffe” by Beltway pundits, Christie’s comment has not been similarly labeled.

In fact, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal said Christie’s insult is proof of “the growing consensus that teachers unions are the main obstacle to improvement in American public schools.”

What motivated Christie to make the remark, as an Education Week reporter surmised, was a need to get “an upper hand in a crowded GOP presidential election field.”

If that supposition is true, Christie likely failed. There is nothing unique about Republican candidates attacking public school teachers.

As education journalist Valerie Strauss points out on her blog at The Washington Post, Christie “is hardly the only candidate antagonistic toward teachers and their unions.” Strauss explains that at least three other Republican presidential candidates – Bush and Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio – have been more “damaging” to teachers and their unions.

There are also a number of political leaders in the Democratic Party who have histories of making unkind remarks about teachers in public. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has often been accused of being “insulting” to educators in his high-handed governance of the city’s public schools. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also been accused of waging “attacks” on public school educators.

So political candidates of all stripes seem to have very few inhibitions to attack public schools teachers – or inclinations to defend them when they are viciously singled out.

There are reasons for this tendency that go beyond political gamesmanship. Certainly politicians want teachers to vote for them and give them campaign contributions. And when weighing that benefit against the potential votes and money that could come in from people who resent being taxed to pay for teacher salaries and benefits, there will always be politicians who opt to go for the anti-tax message.

But the antipathy, or apathy, many politicians tend to have toward teachers derives from the reality that politicians tend to have unreal expectations about teachers and what they do.

Teachers And Their Unions

But first, let’s be clear that an attack on teachers’ unions, like the one Christie’s remark exemplified, is an attack on teachers, or at least a very large representation of them.

If you don’t agree with that, then you’ve simply never been to a teachers’ union meeting of any kind. If you ever make it to a national assembly of one of these organizations, what you’ll confront in the convention hall is a massive showing of literally hundreds and hundreds of teachers. Seriously, if teachers’ unions aren’t made up of teachers, who on earth are they made of?

Teachers take any attack on their unions as something personal. As at least one teacher wrote on his personal blog, Christie’s remark strikes at teachers personally: “Christie wants to punch me in the face … After all, I am a public school teacher. I do belong to one of those nefarious teachers unions.”

Now does that mean that teachers’ unions always represent the majority of their members? Of course not. Can any representative body claim that?

But teachers’ unions are, well, teachers, and political leaders who openly disrespect these organizations are in essence disrespecting teachers. Why do politicians so often disrespect teachers?

The Teacher Wars

Dana Goldstein in her tremendous book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession plunges into that question with great depth and insight this short piece of writing won’t attempt to summarize.

In her detailed account of the complex history of the teaching profession in America, Goldstein grapples with understanding why, in her words, “powerful people seemed to feel indignant about the incompetence and job security of public school teachers.”

Goldstein vividly describes the current regard political leaders have for teachers as a “confusing dichotomy” in which teachers are worshipped in the abstract and ridiculed when they, in the flesh, publically represent their needs and interests. She likens the current obsession with education “reform” to a “moral panic” that by and large has “nothing to do” with the quality of teachers’ work. And she draws on copious evidence from the historical record to today’s news accounts to illustrate how public school administrators working with their local teachers’ unions have developed successful education policies that serve both the interests of teachers and the taxpayers’ needs to know their money is being well spent.

Goldstein’s remarkably nuanced narrative culminates with a brief “lessons from history” that should guide politicians in how they talk about teachers, including the importance of their salaries, their needs for collaborative space and time, and the undue expectations being put on teachers, and the education system as a whole.

But too few politicians do nuance.

“Results” Teachers Can’t Give

What politician do, mostly, is speak in the language of “results.” And in today’s economically minded culture, results are framed in the language of business.

Teaching, we’re so often told, “produces learning” like a sausage machine spits out pods of ground meat wrapped in pig gut. When it comes time for politicians to prove their worthiness to the public, they assume it’s the teachers’ job to show an increase in some sort of measurable output, such as a rise in standardized test scores or a positive swing in graduation rates. When those magic numbers aren’t available, there’s hell to pay, and teachers have to be made “accountable” – never mind that the financial support for education programs is less than it was seven years ago, more students are plagued with the trauma of poverty, teacher salaries are not equivalent to what other professionals make, and higher stress levels in schools have caused teacher morale to plummet.

However, it has never been, and never will be, teachers’ jobs to “produce” learning. Students are the ones who do the learning. And “learning isn’t even a “product.”

As retired teacher and popular blogger Walt Gardner explains for Education Week, teaching isn’t about production as much as it is about relationships. “Teaching by its very nature is a person-to-person undertaking,” he writes. “The trouble is that everything going on today undermines the teacher-student relationship … What good does it do to teach a subject well (high standardized test scores) but to teach students to hate the subject in the process?”

What politicians don’t get is that teachers will generally put up with all the negative conditions of too little money to do a complicated, stress-filled job if people who hold public office would show at least a clue they get this.

Very few politicians do, so their short term interests rarely align with the perspectives of teachers whose very jobs demand they think long term and developmentally. Until one of those two parties adjusts their attitudes, we’ll continue to see teachers openly disparaged, or disregarded, in the public sphere. For the sake of our children, let’s hope the politicians are the ones who make the adjustment.

  • Carolyn Jackson says:

    This needs to be said—over and over and over.

    August 6, 2015 at 2:29 pm
  • Joan s says:

    Children of teachers respect the work of their parents, and are witnesses to the difficulty and long hours of the job. Very few choose to enter the profession. Children of politicians, media, entertainment, finance often choose the profession of their parents. Look at the familiar names. Why?

    August 6, 2015 at 2:42 pm
    • usworker3 says:

      You ask WHY? – Well the answer is or should be obvious – divide the gross amount paid by the number of hours worked, the relationships you have to establish (you don’t meet at the golf course) the abuse you have to contend with (you can’t strike the gavel and say “you are out of order ” ; No .. you have to stand there and take it …
      I graduated from HS in 1960 ….5 years later I spoke to my very favorite HS Chem teach .. and she proceeded to tell me that she had disciplined a student (non-physical) .. and the students parent went to the teachers class room … pulled the teacher out of the class .. and berated her in the front of all the students and God …to the point of crying as she related her story .. and the administration did nothing … again .. when I graduated … Had I done anything wrong .. the teacher would have disciplined me, then my parents would have backed the teacher and disciplined me even more… now it’s a free for all .. no respect .. no pay… no discipline … who would want to teach in that kind of environment … all the while the well to do send their kids to the best schools .. no problems …. and Home schooling is another albatross around the US education system … what a waste!!

      August 6, 2015 at 3:42 pm
      • Scott A. Weir says:

        I graduated in 1964 and have recently reconnected with a classmate I had not seen in 48 years. We talk a lot about these matters, especially the caliber of education we received in the public schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, not exactly a hotbed of progressive anything. Both of us have built extensively on that foundation, even though neither of us has risen to heights in any profession, and even though only I have taken up teaching as a career, not starting full-time until age 56. While we are hardly “public intellectuals,” both of us, along with another friend a few years younger who went to Jesuit schools in New Orleans, are beginning to take some responsibility for speaking out on these matters and working within our community to teach by word and example what education means. The fact that our governor, a former corporate flack, insists that education means job training presents us with great opportunities!

        August 6, 2015 at 4:13 pm
  • Reteach 4 America says:

    Trashing teachers serves the end game of “abolishing the public school system.” http://www.alternet.org/education/right-wing-alec-now-says-school-vouchers-are-kids-suburbia-not-poor

    August 6, 2015 at 3:33 pm
  • Pat Williams says:

    G.W. Bush’s Sec. of Education referred to members of the NEA as “terrorists.” This has been going on for a long time.

    August 6, 2015 at 3:36 pm
    • Barbara Hill says:

      When Republican Bob Dole of Russell, Kansas, mentioned public school teachers and drug dealers in the same sentence I knew who I was not voting for. Nothing has changed in the Republican party: Anti-women, anti-teacher, anti-Medicare, anti-Social Security, etc. etc. etc.

      August 7, 2015 at 6:54 am
  • Scott A. Weir says:

    Thanks to Jeff — and Walt — for explaining what education is, and what it isn’t, the last six paragraphs, and in particular the distinction between education and business. (Perhaps we can take up the distinctions between the institutions of government and both business and education another time.) This is one of the few times if not the only time I have seen that explanation made in the public arena, outside of a few books, and academic work like the essay by Peter Cookson in this newsletter a couple of weeks ago.

    Unfortunately Jeff is preaching to the choir here, as most of the readers of this newsletter understand these concepts intuitively if not formally, and many understand them formally. They need to become part of the public conversation about “education reform” which is currently dominated by ignorant and mean-spirited representatives of global corporatocracy, with
    “mean-spirited” being a very polite way of putting it.

    Personally I think almost everyone is being far too kind to this current generation of education “reformers.” We need to call them out loudly and constantly for what they are (ignorant and mean-spirited), and then explain why. These six paragraphs form a good basis for further discussion. I urge all who visit this page to take some personal responsibility for raising these issues and explaining these fallacies to the wider public.

    August 6, 2015 at 4:02 pm
  • Bob says:

    Before any politician talks about eliminating anyone’s jobs, or cutting their pay, they need to start with themselves! All the Republican Party talks about is cutting the cost of government, they’re a major part of our governmental expense with all of their perks. Let’s get rid of any kind of publicly funded medical care for them, especially after they leave office. Lets get rid of any kind of security for them, especially after they leave office. Lets get rid of travel expenses that aren’t for governmental duty. Most of our members of congress are millionaires, and if they’re not, by the time they finish their so called public service, if they’re not, they’re awful close, with promises of good paying jobs and positions waiting for them. Unless of course they’re one of the rare individuals that actually try to do what was right for the public, and then it’s highly unlikely that they last any amount of time in office.

    People need to wake up, it should be crystal clear that the people that these scum bag Republicans (and unfortunately more and more Democrats) are attacking are pretty much all regular working people who are still fortunate enough to earn a somewhat decent wage. Thirty five plus years of attacking decent, to good paid union and government workers has led to the pathetic state of our country. Regardless of what these crooked, corrupt, bought off politicians say, as well as the owned, and overpaid talking heads, rag newspapers, and publications like the Wall Street Journal, any one with the least bit of sense should be able to realize that if more, or better yet, all of our working public earned decent, to good livable wages, that they were paying taxes based on, our country would be flourishing. An added bonus that these clowns love to vilify, social programs, would be a very little needed thing, if working people were earning enough money to support themselves decently.

    Anyone who is truly concerned about our country should be questioning why we as a country let big business, and big finance, eliminate millions of manufacturing jobs primarily for their benefit. We were pretty much self sufficient as a nation, making everything that we used and needed, as well as employing our citizens with decent, to goof paying wages, that they paid taxes on to fund our country. Those jobs and wages also allowed our working citizens to be able to spend money and buy things that promoted small business and our country’s real economy.They pretty much said, we’re more important than the working citizens of this country, and even the country itself, and away they went building insane fortunes by gutting our manufacturing, and putting millions of people out of work. We, as supposedly a civilized country, established rules and regulations to cover our working class, as well as decent pay scales considering union and governmental workers. They thumbed their noses and took their jobs to countries where they could exploit as many poor people as they can. Eliminating any kind of bargaining chip the working public might have, not to mention any kind of decency. Now, rules and regulations here are almost as bad as in the countries the jobs were sent to. They still might be on the books, but they’re rarely enforced. There are sweat shops all over the country that can proudly label their goods as, “Made In America”, yet a lot of the workers are illegal, and the ones that aren’t are terrified about losing their jobs, so more times than not they’re used and abused. Then we have the wonderful private prison system that is using prison labor at .12 an hour to under cut even China’s pathetic labor rate. We as tax payers pay them to house and feed the prisoners, they turn around and make money off of the cheap labor, and the investors make money off of the whole game.

    Our country has been turned into a giant, greed driven, only the stock markets matter, cancer, that is eating the country alive, and so many people buy into the, “I’m smarter than the next person, I deserve to be rich mindset”. Attacking and destroying jobs and wages for our working citizens is unsustainable, and is leading to nothing but a huge melt down.

    August 6, 2015 at 4:07 pm
    • Scott A. Weir says:

      I didn’t mean to get into an extended polemic here this morning, but I think it is a good idea to think of the current political climate as quite simply a continuation of the tyranny that the Founders of this Republic were rebelling against, even though they unwittingly became a part of it in certain ways. This is the same tyranny that arose with the Agricultural Revolution some ten millennia ago, the kingly/priestly classes that Thorstein wrote about in “The Theory Of the Leisure Class” in 1899. The tyranny of the factory owners who became the Robber Barons more than a century ago replaced the Divine Right of Kings with the Divine Right of Capital, the title of another book. It has in turn been replaced with the tyranny of the bankers who were always its foundation. Same tyranny, different manifestations in different ages.

      August 6, 2015 at 4:21 pm
    • Sally Bookwalter says:

      Wow! I wish I had said that. Oh, I forgot, I have said it time and again and again. You helped me from feeling so lonely out hear, shouting to the four winds. Thanks.

      August 6, 2015 at 6:46 pm
  • C A Johnson says:

    Teachers are the primary target of the “Christian” Right. Their unspoken and even unrealized by themselves agenda as pawns of Capitalism is to substitute the long discredited Divine Right of Kings with the Divine Right of Employers.

    As long as the myth of the failure of Education to produce a skilled workforce exists, as aided by students unable to think for themselves due to insubstantial funding and variations on Creationism taught in schools, corporations call the tune. Future generations will continue to dance to that tune believing it to be the best of all possible worlds.

    August 6, 2015 at 5:49 pm
    • Richard Patten says:

      Public schools tend to teach critical thinking and secular fact about history and science-both anathema to right-wing ideology.

      August 6, 2015 at 8:59 pm
  • Jon Lubar says:

    FYI, according to the longstanding doctrine of the Catholic Church, union busting is a mortal sin. This position the church has taken is not representative of any liberal vs. conservative disagreement or schism, those who run the site and offer guidance on workers rights have no other affiliation than with their faith and it’s guidance on such issues. http://www.catholicscholarsfor workerjustice.org

    August 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm
    • Jon Lubar says:

      Sorry for a badly typed link, here’s the right way: http://www.catholicscholarsforworkerjustice.org

      August 6, 2015 at 6:53 pm
    • Scott A. Weir says:

      I think the commenter above was referring to certain Protestant groups that protest mainly about all the wrong things! Catholic scholars, Jesuits especially, have indeed been very clear on social justice issues, so clear at times as to incur the displeasure of the Holy See.

      August 7, 2015 at 2:01 am
  • crazedyak says:

    In general, red states treat public education employees like dirt.

    August 8, 2015 at 5:39 pm
  • Mary Pellecchia says:

    For years, politicians have tried to bottom-line teaching, treating it as if it were a science or a business. They started off wrong, and they are even more wrong today, after decades of working on their hate machine. Good teaching is an art form.
    Most non-teachers have no idea of a teacher’s job. They are relying on their memory as students. Everyone who was ever a student thinks they know all about teaching–“you just sit there and hand out work and we do all the work and you just sit there and you never do any work.” Perhaps it is said in language more sophisticated than the average sixth-grader’s (and in Governor Christie’s case I have my doubts), but that’s the gist of their understanding. So, yes, this may be preaching to the choir, but the choir has to get out there and try to convince all the non-teachers they know.

    August 9, 2015 at 4:10 am
  • nguyen says:

    I think it’s safe to say, based on current poll numbers December 2015 …. C.C. doesn’t have a chance of being president. He should have taken the offer up last election season when the GOP was BEGGING him to take on Obama who was running for his second term. I think his ego perhaps got to him and he figured he’d be wanted in 2016 just as badly. Now he can punch himself in the face every time he looks in the mirror.

    December 5, 2015 at 2:38 am

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