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The Value of a Teacher

SUMMARY: Teachers in the US are poorly compensated for the work in comparison to teachers in Japan.  Outside of the best public schools and elite private schools, students are educated to become loyal, obedient citizens with adequate job skills.  This contrasts sharply with earlier educational goals in America.

(About an 8 minute read)

My second wife, Tomoko, spent her early years in Tokyo, Japan.  She attended an elite school whose students were mainly the sons and daughters of government and corporate leaders.

Tomoko’s father, for instance, was an American on loan from Motorola to Sony who headed up Sony’s East Asian quality control during the years Japanese goods became synonymous with “quality”.   Her cousin, who tutored her growing up, was at one point the head of North American sales for Toyota.  His major accomplishment was taking Toyota products from about 6% of the car market in the US to over 22%.

Like the students in elite, private and expensive American schools, the students in Tomoko’s school were encouraged to think.  After all, they would need to do a lot of thinking to accomplish the jobs they would one day occupy running Japan’s government and industries.

In Japan, it is unusual for a school to emphasize thinking and decision-making.  Most common schools do not.  They emphasize rote-learning and obedience because — frankly — that’s what they are preparing their students for.  Lives as interchangeable cogs in the machine.

But even the teachers in common Japanese schools are reverenced as among the most valuable members of their communities.  Americans would be shocked at high their status is.  The Japanese, like so many East and Southern Asians, accord teachers nearly godlike respect and deference.

Each year, a child’s teacher is invited by his or her parents to visit them in their home.  This is quite a formal occasion.  The parents put on their best clothing and serve the teacher tea and delicacies.

Tomoko’s mother happened to have a designer dress that, in today’s currency, would cost about $65,000.   She would wear it on only two occasions.  Once, when she and her husband were received by the Emperor.  Then also whenever she received one of Tomoko’s teachers.

In contrast to how teachers are respected in Japan, America under-values its teachers on all levels of its educational system, but especially below the university level.  They are relatively poorly paid and over-worked.  And no one reserves a $65,000 designer dress to receive them into their homes.

Of course, you often get what you pay for in this world — pay for both in terms of money and respect.  Because the occupation is not valued, most American teachers are either extremely dedicated people who love teaching, or they are incompetents who cannot get equivalent employment anywhere else.

Until I got into university, I certainly thought most teachers were incompetent.  I didn’t have a clue or a thought about why that seemed to me the case, but I certainly knew that’s how it seemed to me.

I grew up in a small, largely rural community.  Looking back now, I can see that — except perhaps in one specific way — the community did what it could to educate its children with the limited resources available to it.   But at the time, all I saw was that my teachers were dull, uninspired, and uninspiring.

For instance, there was almost no science — about the only subject that held my interest for more than five minutes — until fifth grade.  That was the year we quit spending all day with just one teacher, and began moving from class to class through-out the day.

I didn’t know at the time that the system had been changed that year specifically because it was recognized that science wasn’t getting taught under the old system.  Had I known that — and had I correctly made sense of it — I would have realized how deeply my teachers cared for their student’s education.

The one way in which the community actually did in fact let down the students, when doing so was unnecessary due to budgets, was by hiring relatively incompetent teachers at times.

Here’s how that worked: In a small community, everyone looks out for everyone else.  When someone needs a job, for instance, at least a dozen or so people will rise up to help them find one.  But what if the person is not qualified for much?

For decades the community had been, whenever possible, dumping educated women who needed to work into teaching jobs if for some reason they weren’t suited to the very few other occupations available to women at the time.  Most of those women were grateful for their jobs, but not really enthusiastic about teaching. Sometimes the community did the same with educated men.

My cousin, by the way, was an exception to that.  Although in need of work, teaching was her love and joy.  She had started out as the high school Latin teacher, been promoted to principle, and then forced out a few years later.

She was forced out because the superintendent needed to blame someone for his own stupid mistake of telling her to enforce an illegal dress code.  She was thus put in a position where she’d be fired either way — either for disobeying him or for enforcing the code.  She chose to resign in protest — something that soon led to his own dismissal as the community rallied around her.

Until fifth grade, my school days were spent divided equally between English and arithmetic.  I had a problem with the arithmetic.  A sadistic first year teacher had turned me off to it by some rather cruel punishments she inflicted for not getting a problem correct.

As for the English, the fad in teaching at the time was to avoid practicing reading and writing.  I would have enjoyed doing those things.  Instead, they spent hours each day diagramming sentences.  Fads!

It wasn’t until middle school that I met my first competent teacher — a history teacher.  In high school, I met two or three more competent teachers, including the school librarian.  She took me under her arm and believed in me.  Her encouragement was a formative experience.

It wasn’t until I was at university that I met more than a handful of competent teachers, including a few who were outstanding.  They shaped not only my intellectual skills and knowledge, but in many cases honed my values — such as intellectual honesty.

In most of the world outside of America, it goes without saying that that the quality of teaching a child receives greatly determines the quality of their lives later on.  Poorly educated people have far fewer opportunities in life than better educated people.

Beyond that, the quality of education each generation receives largely determines both the nation’s economic competitiveness and the health of its democratic institutions.  You cannot long have an ignorant people who remain a free people.

America has not always under-valued both its teachers and education itself.  If you were to go back to our frontier days, you would find — as one historian put it — that the frontier was “littered with schools and colleges”.  Schools and colleges were among the first community structures built, right after the churches went up.

In fact, when the Japanese began importing the “best of the West” in the 1800s, they modeled their navy on the British fleet, their army on the Prussian, and their educational system on the American.

It seems to me no accident that common public education in the US today has been allowed to grossly deteriorate.  It behooves the elites in power on both sides of the aisle that the masses are not well educated.

Before America became a nation, the primary goal of education in the Northern colonies was religious. Basically, the thought was you needed to read your bible — along with other religious literature — in order to lead a devout life.

That changed following the Revolution.  The goal became political.  You got educated, people would tell you, so you could participate in governing yourself as anyone’s equal.

Then that too changed, following the adoption of Prussian ideals about the purpose of education.  The Prussians had instituted universal education in order to create loyal citizens of the state.  As more and more Germans migrated to the US, they brought with them Prussian notions of the value and purpose of mass education.

Later on, the Prussian notion was added to and expanded on.  The value of mass education was not only to make good, obedient “citizens”, but was now seen as a way to create a workforce educated enough to support the new industries.

And that’s where we are today.  On the mass or common level, we educate primary to instill loyalty and obedience, along with the skills necessary to work in the modern labor force.

All but forgotten now is the ancient American idea that one should get an education to  further self-government — let alone the notion that the well educated man or woman might have a better quality life.

Questions?  Comments?


This post was inspired by an extraordinary article posted earlier today on Parikhitdutta’s blog, which can be found here.

15 thoughts on “The Value of a Teacher”

  1. I completely agree. When I was in elementary and middle school, I also thought that my teachers were incompetent and didn’t care about their students. And until I got to high school and found teachers that really cared about me, I was at the bottom of the class. Some standardized test I took in 6th grade told me I wasn’t even going to graduate from high school. Only once I realized the value of teachers was I able to become somewhat of an intelligent person. Just knowing that they care and are willing to help me really motivated me to work harder. I owe so much of my successes to them. Of course not all teachers are like that. Teachers are severely underpaid and only those that have a genuine spark can be good teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love you, Paul. This is the first time I have read an intelligent criticism of the American education system. I’ve always been sickened by the way US children seem to be brainwashed into blind patriotism, trained to be cogs in an enormous, corrupt machine. I have a sister-in-law who is a history professor in the University of Seattle. She was the first American I ever met who wasn’t blinded by repetition and lies. It was way before I began blogging, and got to know other citizens of “the greatest country/continent in the world”. It has been a relief for me to learn that she wasn’t the only free-thinking human being in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You want to know what one of the most insidious American educational practices is? Testing. Americans have — since George W. Bush — gone nuts over testing children. Teachers — even good ones — are now required to “teach to the test” rather than, say, teach or encourage students to think. It’s devastating.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have SATs (Standard Attainment Tests) in the UK over here. The word STANDARD sickens me. The results go into a machine which coughs out a of the schools, from the highest achievers to the lowest. Gaining a high placement is far more important than educating the kids appropriately.

        If we must have tests, I’d rather they were based on an individual’s skills and interests, and on their genuine need. They’d be carried out for the student’s benefit, not for that of the school.

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  3. It’s as if we are purposely dumbing down the American system. I sometimes wonder if it all comes down to maintaining a want society instead of a need. By forcing excellent teachers to leave in frustration it appears planned instead of a bad system.

    Good stuff. Frustrating to read but we need to hear it. Thanks.

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    1. Bryan, your suspicions may be spot on. You might be fascinated by the documentary, “The Century of the Self”. It is about the systematic effort made since the 1920s to turn Americans into little more than consumers. Check it out, if you’d like.

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  4. I am honestly surprised to read more and am intrigued to find out more about the American education system below university level. I always thought of the education system there that tends to inspire people, think out of the box and arrive at solutions rather than learning the solution.

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    1. There are some very fine private schools that encourage students to think — really think — and decide for themselves what is or is not true, but most of the public schools do that on a hit or miss basis at best. If you have a good teacher, he or she will do it. But the system is not usually set up for it, and mediocre and poor teachers will discourage thinking. Usually, you have to go to university to be systematically encouraged to think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I should add. The primary way I think the schools fail students is through poor budgets and budget cuts that translate into low salaries for teachers. The people who choose to teach then tend to be mediocre to poor teachers who resort to rote learning with perhaps a nod at something better. The relatively rare good teacher is so dedicated that their salary hardly matters to them.

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