21 March 2011

How to fix the respect problem

As state budget crises have become the dominant domestic news story, teachers and teacher pay have once again moved into the forefront of the public discussion in this country. As a public educator, I am torn; I want the nation to have this discussion and I'm terrified by the way the discussion will go.

But the one thing we can count on is that everyone will talk about how much they respect the work that teachers do. However, there will almost certainly be a disconnect between those words of respect and the actions the talking heads want us as a society to take.

Many people have talked about the problems of respect for teachers. In fact, I think I have in a previous post. (Well, to be fair, I didn't talk about it in the way I thought I did. Still, I think this is in the vein of "respect") What will fix the problem? More money? This article lays out the case for paying teachers better in a much more researched and logical way than I could. I think that more money would, as Kristof argues, attract better people to teaching. It would also allow teachers to consume products that our consumption society equates with success, which, it could be argued, would lead to more respect. 

But I've got another idea.

What about uniforms? No, not Twisted Sister or the Road Warriors (although I do think that "Teacher of the Year" should win a championship belt). I don't need teachers to wear Smokey Bear hats like Marine Drill Instructors or aviator sunglasses like power-crazed local cops. But I do think that we could come up with something for teachers to wear that would signify their status as public servants.

You think I'm crazy. You know that the unions will never stand for it (not that silly things like unions stand in the way of "the public will" anymore). You think that teachers won't subordinate their personal freedom of expression to dress in a uniform. You point out that we often can't even force kids into uniforms at public schools. I know that all of those points are true; but this is my blog, so indulge me.

Think about the discounts you see at restaurants: police, fire, military. These are all professions that make similar money to teachers. What are the key differences between the people that politicians like to call "our finest" and me?

1. They risk their lives in a more direct way than teachers. (this is not a small difference, but the vast majority of their day is not life threatening)
2. They wear uniforms.

That seems to me to be the key difference. In our society, we have decided that people who wear uniforms are respected. Two days ago I was flying from Denver to the Central Valley of California (which is a nice way to say "Fresno"), and while I was waiting 3 hours for the plane to get fixed several uniformed members of the Army came and went through my gate area. In all of their cases, at least one person thanked them for their service. Had they not been in uniform, they would not have been accorded that graciousness. 

I don't begrudge them the thanks they received. In one case, the Sergeant had been to Iraq for three tours. He deserves the thanks of the citizens who voted for the guy(s) who sent him there. 

So do teachers. They may not be forced overseas, or relocated, but they do spend their lives committed to public service. I think that many people genuinely do appreciate teachers, but they don't know who we are. Because we don't wear a uniform, because we don't have a standard for facial hair, tattoos, or piercings, we're hard to pick out of a crowd. I, for one, would wear a standard teaching uniform if it meant that I could get the same kinds of discounts that military, fire and police often qualify for (and the random thanks of strangers, awkward though it must be).

(At this point, I could go flying off the handle on the undue respect accorded to the other portion of our nation that wears uniforms. Athletes. I'm not going to, though. Another day, another post. I only give it to you a little at a time, like a drug dealer. I'm getting you hooked on the BlazeBlog. And yes, this was an entire parenthetical paragraph! I clearly have no editor.)

I don't know what this teacher's uniform should look like (though there should clearly be a "dress" uniform option for parent teacher conferences, media interviews, and prom). Perhaps Project Runway could use this as a challenge next season. I shudder to think what they would come up with. However, even with that fear,  I don't really care, as long as it looks traditionally "sharp". 

Oh, and don't make me look like the postal service. Those uniforms aren't getting anybody any respect.


  1. There would certainly need to be several options for the uniform! I don't think the PE and chemistry teachers, for example, would have the same dress needs (natural fabrics don't burn or melt to one's skin as easily, yet most uniforms use them for ease of care!).

    Of course, if you have a uniform, you also need a ranking system. I'm thinking Star Trek style, myself. Collar buttons can designate the superintendent, principal, teachers, and aides.

    I've become quite the fan of wearing a lab coat, myself. When I'm working with students who may be taller or otherwise more mature looking, it helps me stand out in the lab. They easily know where to find me, and it does bring the respect up a notch. Plus, I've ruined too many shirts from leaning over uncleaned benchtops and learned my lesson.

    Bring it on, Project Runway!

  2. I think Mondo could make it work. And you would wear it.