What I think TIME should put on its cover

Full disclosure: much as I love TIME, I’m about to judge it by its now infamous teacher-bashing cover. I haven’t read the article yet, but that’s beside the point right now, because covers sell magazines. So let’s talk about the cover.

I think TIME needs to start working outside the box. Laying full blame on teachers for our much-maligned school system has gotten old. Giving front-page points to reforms proposed by people who have never worked in a school or with students is a bit hackneyed by now. TIME already gave one cover page away to that one school chancellor who was famous for firing a bunch of teachers, and then her schools didn’t even improve. Isn’t it time to work a different angle?

More importantly, how much evidence does TIME have that “bad teachers” cause most of the problems in schools? Because in my ten years of classroom teaching, “bad teachers” were very low on my list of concerns. In fact, nearly every teacher I worked with spent long hours in and out of school trying their very best to serve children they cared deeply about. My colleagues were generally highly intelligent, well-educated people with innovative ideas for delivering instruction. They were funny, creative, motivated and motivational. They came to school early and stayed late. They took stacks of papers home to grade. They talked through lesson ideas and tried, with time that didn’t exist, to plan cross-curricular projects. They were good teachers.

Despite being surrounded by these good teachers, I had plenty to worry about. Here’s my short list of cover-worthy angles:

1. My students’ home lives. I worried about students who came to school with Monster energy drinks for breakfast and Doritos for lunch. I worried about students who went home to drug abuse and physical violence. I worried about students who went home to empty houses. I worried about students whose parents didn’t care when they plagiarized or failed a test. I worried about students who couldn’t worry about schoolwork because they had too many other valid worries. I worried about students who had been told they were too smart or too dumb. I worried about students who got bullied, and students who bullied people, long after the final bell rang. I worried about how to create lessons that would reach all of these very different students when they came into my classroom the next day. I worried about oppressive homework loads and tried to keep my own reasonable while juggling multiple curricular pressures. I worried that what my students faced outside of school would cripple them inside school.

2. Time. After a full teaching day I always brought hours of planning and grading work home with me, and rarely got a chance to sit down and connect with my colleagues in ways that probably would have benefited our mutual students. I would have loved to have more time built into my workday to collaborate with fellow teachers, hash through lesson plans and classroom management ideas, align curriculum, and develop common approaches. The structure of the typical teaching day and year can make it a fairly isolating job, when really it should be collegial; teachers have the best chance of serving kids well if they can work with one another. But most teachers work far beyond the 8-hour day as it is; time is hard to come by.

3. Testing. I got so tired of having days and weeks of class swallowed up by testing. It seemed that just as I’d start a new unit or hit a new stride with a class, I’d be reminded that in a couple weeks I’d lose my students to the next standardized test. And by the way, I might want to try to prepare them a bit for that test, which usually involved stepping away from the standards-based curriculum I was working from and trying to teach new and wholly test-specific skills. I also knew that despite how long it can take to create change, and how problematic and inauthentic standardized tests can be, that I’d be judged on some level by how my students performed.

Blaming teachers instead of these problems is easy because we get to point the finger at an “other” instead of at ourselves. Addressing the other problems would involve looking inwards at our own society, at our poor funding of schools, at our futile attempts to give children from vastly different backgrounds an “equal” shot in life, and at our conflicted and often unfair characterization of people who work in education. But what if, instead of chastising teachers, we worked on supporting them? What if we listened to their concerns? TIME, would that make a good cover story?