I hopped into an Uber while jabbering into my phone. I was talking to some reporter or other for a wrap-up story on this spring’s teacher walkouts. The driver must’ve been listening a bit because, when I hung up, she abruptly asked, “What did you think about those teacher strikes?”
I said, “I’m sympathetic. Teachers don’t make a lot of money, and that’s especially true in the states where they walked out. And I’d like to see them paid more. But it seems like we should pay attention to the cost of their benefits and make sure the money is well spent. So I’m a little mixed.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I think,” she said. “I think working stiffs deserve better, and I’m all for paying teachers more. Kids can be a trial, and I’m thankful for what teachers do. But that’s why I think they need to do the job they’re paid to do. I can’t believe all those teachers just walked away from their jobs. I’ve got three kids in school. If teachers had done that here, and I had to stay home to watch my babies, it would’ve cost me money I can’t afford to lose.”
“But you’ve got to remember,” I said, “that these teachers had been asking for raises for years and weren’t getting them. And these weren’t really strikes—most of the schools were closed by the superintendents, to keep things orderly and avoid having kids show up with no teachers around.”
She gave me a look through the rearview mirror. “That’s a whole lot of nonsense,” she said. “How would all those teachers like it if their baby was in a car accident and needed an ambulance, but no one came because the ambulance workers said, ‘We’re on a strike’? Or if their apartment was on fire and the firemen didn’t come because they were on strike? I don’t think they’d like it one bit.”
“But—” I said.
“And they wouldn’t like it any better,” she said, “if the hospital told them, ‘We’re canceling ambulance service today,’ instead of the ambulance workers just not showing up. Either way, the job isn’t getting done.”
She went on. “It sure seems to me like teachers get treated with kid gloves—like they’re fragile little angels who’ll break if you say the wrong thing to them. Here’s an example: I heard this thing on the radio the other day that teachers were angry that they spend money out-of-pocket on the job.”
“They do,” I said. “The news was reporting that teachers spend close to $500 a year out of their pockets. Though,” I conceded, “that’s probably an exaggeration.”
“This is what I’m saying,” she said. “If you heard about this on the radio, like I did, you’d think teachers were the only workers who go into their own pockets to pay for things. First off, I’m not sure I believe all those teachers are really spending $500 every year. I want to see some receipts.” She paused and gave me a wink. “Second, I don’t suppose that radio reporter ever talked to construction workers, nurses, drivers—lots of people shell out real money for work. But nobody plays sad songs for the rest of us.”
I said, “You obviously don’t spend much time around education, or else you’d know that what you’re saying is pretty tone-deaf. Teachers work hard at an important job. Quibbling about whether other people buy work supplies too, or precisely how much teachers spend, seems to be disrespectful. You know, it misses the larger point.”
This time she just laughed and shook her head at me. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “I mean, you can’t complain about spending a lot of money out-of-pocket for your job, and then get huffy if someone points out that you’re spending less than you said. And you sure can’t play like it’s such a big deal to dig into your pocket, and then say it doesn’t matter if lots of other folks do the same thing.”
“Whoa! It sounds like you really don’t like teachers,” I said.
She chuckled. “My husband’s a teacher, and so is my mom. I like them just fine. But I think teachers get treated with kid gloves a lot, and they’ve kind of gotten used to it. When you respect someone, you don’t treat them that way.”
She looked up. “We’re here,” she said.
I sat still for a moment. “What about—?” I said.
“Sorry, no time. I need to get rolling,” she said, tapping the clock in the car. “I’ve got to drive six more hours tonight to help pay for my daughter’s tutor. But go find my husband, he’s on summer vacation—he’s got some time on his hands.” And with that, she was off.
— Frederick Hess
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.