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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Hardest Job in America

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
Tamara Friedman of Berkeley High School wins the Berkeley Unified School District's 2013 Teacher of the Year Award.

The hardest job in America? Being a teacher, so said Sargent Shriver on October 13, 1972, in a speech given as part of his vice presidential campaign with George McGovern. Forty-two years after this remarkable speech, his words bear sharing.

Sargent Shriver begins by saying that it is the hardest job "not just because the teachers of America have been blamed and castigated for all the ills" of our educational system. When the fact is that teachers are not the causes of these ills but are victims themselves, "not just because teachers often work in archaic schools with inadequate facilities for both teacher and child," and "not just because a narrow officialdom has bogged teachers down in massive red tape wasteful of time and destructive of initiative" (did Sarge ever have to do student growth objectives, I wonder?) though all of these, and more, are "difficult, frustrating obstacles in your profession."

Shriver said that it's the hardest job because teachers are expected to teach students values that they are not seeing lived all around them and in the society overall. What are the values that Shriver believes are central to effective education? They are not controversial: reverence for life, honesty and truth, brotherhood/sisterhood and unity, desire, and respect for knowledge and education.

Why did Shriver believe these values were not a priority to educational policymakers and not first in the minds of children? Four reasons, each one as relevant today as in 1972:

  1. Much more money is spent on war than on education.
  2. Hungry, sick, and uncared for children are not a priority of the federal government. "This Administration doesn't even seem to comprehend that those problems are all handicaps to a child's education."
  3. Our national, state, and local politicians and educational leaders do not model these essential values.
  4. Too many communities in which many of our children live, which surround the schools, are characterized by poor housing and recreation, inadequate health care, joblessness, racial/ethnic discrimination, and hopelessness, which "all find their way to the school door. A child who is hungry, or sleepy or sick or on drugs cannot learn."

I hope you are as struck as I am by how Shriver's words from 1972 resonate in the present. He was not being prescient. He was describing his situation at the time with brutal honesty. He could not have known, and likely could not have imagined, that the conditions he spoke about would largely persist over four decades later.

What Did Shriver Recommend?

The context of the speech, of course, gives you Shriver's ultimate recommendation: Elect George McGovern to the White House and he would create the changes needed, with Shriver's assistance.

But we need something a bit more contemporary, and from the speech, we can extract three of Shriver's ideas that we can apply to the present:

1. Provide early childhood education. This ensures that especially disadvantaged youth have a "head start" that allows them to begin school less far behind. Shriver was not just advocating universal preschool. He wanted children to have the health and dental care of Head Start, and he wanted their parents to have education, parenting support, and job and housing assistance.

2. Create political coalitions to raise voices on behalf of those who do not have a political voice. Persistent, strong leadership in the cause of children's well-being is what creates political momentum. Shriver knew this from his prior successes in the War on Poverty and Head Start expansion.

3. Make schools places where the essential values are lived. Let children see, day in and day out, what it means to some every day for half a year to a place where life is revered, honesty and truth are cherished, knowledge and education are respected, and the diverse adults and children in and around the building involved with education experience unity.

There is a lot in Shriver's speech that was rooted in the politics of 1972, but there is much more that is rooted in enduring reality. The impossible conditions that so many teachers labor under, as enumerated by Shriver, as debilitating as they are, do not carry the emotional and personal weight of trying to get children to follow a path not lived around them.

So while we look to political and policy action to correct the larger systemic problems, let's look within and make our schools places that nurture children's social-emotional and character development in the best possible ways.

When the school doors are open, and everyone is eager to enter and look forward to returning the next day, we will have taken major steps to making the hardest job in America less difficult, and far more rewarding.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Mary Blouin's picture
Mary Blouin
Educational Specialist/Curriculum writer/Bixby Educational Events,Inc.

What a sad comment it is on America that in two decades we have not changed the way we view our children or the way we treat our teachers.
Until we change the mind set of people on both those counts we will not be able to implement the recommendations that Sgt. Shriver so eloquently suggested nor any other change for that matter.
When parents can override a teacher in a classroom with demands for a change in curriculum, grades, and special attention to the point of threatening a teacher's position or expulsion, we have allowed the profession of teaching to be criticized and degraded.
When this happens the teacher becomes a slave of the system and the public it educates. How can a teacher then be respected for what he/she has been educated for? How can a teacher be admired for what they do? Why would anyone aspire to become a teacher when they know that being one has no value in our society?
It is very interesting that teaching and motherhood are placed in the same category when it comes to respect and understanding. Both are in the business of nurturing children's social-emotional and character development in the best possible ways. Both see reverence for life, honesty and truth, brotherhood/sisterhood and unity, desire, and respect for knowledge and education as important to success.
While both teachers and mothers see the importance of gaining these traits, it falls to the teacher in most cases to instill them. The parent/s are too busy with their jobs and own lives to do it and some believe that it is indeed the job of the schools.
So if the child does not perform according to the plan, it becomes the fault of the teacher and/or education system and not the parental system.
Children are seen as extensions of their parents and as such reflect on who the parents are and how they shape up against their peers. This is a huge burden for children and cause most of the anger and depression we see in classrooms today from the pressure to be the best.
The teachers are criticized, pressured, told what to do and threatened, while the children are just as pressured to perform.
A mind change must occur in people that will make them understand where the responsibility begins and ends in the classroom and in the home before any positive changes can take effect in our public educational system. We should be thankful and grateful to those who are dedicated to teaching children and have made education their life's work. I know that I am.

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