05/08/2012 11:24 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2012

In Praise of Ordinary Teachers

No, your kids are not going to be taught exclusively by extraordinary teachers. Neither were you and neither was I.

By definition, most of our teachers are ordinary.

In all the rush (this week especially) to find and exalt the "best" teachers, we tend to forget this. But really the crisis in American education is about how to find and retain and nourish ordinary teachers. They are the ones who do most of the work, have the greatest influence, and are under the greatest stress.

For my parents' generation and mine, these ordinary teachers were female. Teaching was one of the few professions open to women and schools benefited enormously from this discrimination. Women who would later become lawyers, doctors, and journalists taught school because the path was clear and possible. When women could more readily go into other professions, the school system was cushioned because unions had made schools an attractive place to work. There was real job security, decent pay, good pensions, and summers off.

Yet these are exactly the things that are now under attack.

Tenure is presented as the refuge of bad teachers (rather than as the reason good ones are retained), salaries are deemed too high during the current depression, and public employees' pensions attacked as the reason for state government financial failure. Let's admit these are real problems and that, in particular, the problem of truly bad teachers cannot be solved by raising taxes or growing the economy. We still need to ask how we are going to raise the competency level of ordinary teachers if we take these things away.

Absent discrimination, job security, a promise of an unspectacular middle-class life, and comfortable retirement, why would anyone become a teacher? Some, of course, do so because they have a passion for education. They are likely to be the class that produces the "best" teachers and, frankly, they're not the ones we need to worry about.

If only we could staff an entire school system with people who were willing to make huge financial and status sacrifices in order to educate. We can't.

So what do we have to offer?

There's no financial upside to teaching. Education is not the film business or Wall Street. Nobody becomes an educator with the hope of a huge jackpot. At a time when law and medical schools are losing applicants to B-schools, what chance does education have?

For all the yammering, teachers are never going to have status. Status is reserved for the exceptional -- Senators have status; Representatives do not. The best ordinary teachers can hope for is respect. Instead, they have been demonized, as if they are personally responsible for bad students. (Has it really occurred to no one that when you can't get a job with a high school diploma, there is no incentive for non-college bound students to achieve?)

Yes, there is the great pleasure that can come in the classroom when a light goes on behind a student's eyes. That's a huge incentive, but it's a lot harder to achieve when class sizes grow and teachers are measured not by student engagement but by teaching to the test. If you tell a student they're incompetent, they will surely produce incompetent work. Why does anyone think that a presumption of incompetence produces better teachers?

All we have to offer ordinary teachers is quality of life.

If we don't find a way of maintaining that quality, then we shall lose the quality of our ordinary teachers. And everything depends upon them.