No, this is not about how teachers should be paid better, though many should and could be. No, this is not at all about how teacher unions should have a bigger say in school policy – they absolutely should not. And no, this is not about empowering teacher committees. It is, though, about empowering teachers by recognizing them as education practitioners and giving them a chance to take charge.

Ever seen this on somebody’s bumper?

            “If you can read this, thank a teacher”

The obvious intent is to promote respect and appreciation for teachers, especially public school teachers, since they so often play such a big role in individuals’ educations. But why do some feel the need to call attention to teachers and attempt to guilt us into respecting them?

According to one website, teaching is among the most respected occupations in the world. Of 35 countries surveyed for a 2018 publication by the Varkey Foundation, the United States landed just above the middle in how highly teachers were valued. Asian nations dominate in valuing teachers more highly, with the exception of Japan. Some Western nations, including Russia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Greece more highly value teachers than the United States. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Italy place a lower value.

In all likelihood, respect for teachers as a group has fallen in this country given the reaction of teachers’ unions to Covid-19. Few respect members of a profession who apparently believe they deserve to be paid a regular salary with money forcibly taken from others (taxes) while doing essentially nothing to earn it for months, and in some cases, for more than a year.

But, who really fails to respect teachers? One can measure this with surveys, where people express their opinions in words. Or, one can look at the true measure of a person’s attitudes and look at their actions. And when actions are scrutinized, it becomes clear that those who claim to have the greatest respect for teachers actually have the least.

Take unions, for example. Except for different salary levels according to years spent in the classroom, unions insist on equal teacher pay for every teacher in a district, regardless of productivity, regardless of professionalism, and regardless of subject taught and expertise. This is less respect than one would give a dog in that it denies agency, ignores incentives, and effectively equates everyone to the lowest common denominator.

Take school administrators as another example. My wife is a teacher. She is required to attend “professional development” periods where presenters so disrespect teachers that they obviously do less preparation than my wife does for a single class of high school students. Recently, she and her colleagues were required to sit on little round cafeteria seats for six hours of such “training.” Told at the end of last year to make sure classrooms were arranged for painting, nothing was painted. The district sold desks that were taken out of classrooms for the sake of social distancing, not because they were truly surplus but to open warehouse space, and then leaving teachers scrambling for desks. Fragile personal property my wife explicitly said not to move was destroyed to wax her floor over the summer, and no effort was made to restore the room’s arrangement. On her campus, there are three duplicating machines, all broken; the administrative office has a very nice one, but teachers are restricted from using it.

I could go on and on with examples, all of which apply to other teachers, but suffice it to say that yes, actions do speak louder than words. Actions make it obvious in school after school, and district after district, that over and over again, administrators have no respect for the teachers they are supposed to lead. Yet, in talking to parents, over and over administrators claim to care for and love children.

Which leads me to the title of this missive, taken from another bumper sticker:

            “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.”

Teachers are the practitioners in education, just as doctors are practitioners in medicine, and attorneys are practitioners in law. Administrators in medicine and law are there to serve the practitioners, who directly serve their clients. This relationship is turned on its head in education, but there is a way to turn it right-side-up, with Professional Teacher Charters.

Professional Teacher Charters would allow one or more experienced, proven teachers to open a publicly-funded charter school when they demonstrate the wherewithal to financially indemnify the state from loss if their school fails, through purchase of a bond. A bond issuer would insist on a sound business plan, so there is no need for a special committee of know-nothings to evaluate the plan. With a Professional Teacher Charter, the teachers would be their own bosses, free to compete and be rewarded based on their own success. And the administrators they would hire would be there to serve the teachers and, in turn, the students, instead of the administrators serving their own bureaucratic/political ambitions. Teachers would set priorities instead of up-and-coming bureaucrats.

If we truly value teachers as much as the surveys say, then we will put our policies where our mouths are, and let teachers willing to take some risk for the sake of themselves and their students be the sort of practitioners so many say they are and long to be. That means being bold with policy and moving forward with innovations like Professional Teacher Charters, and other school choice reforms.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.