The Failure Belt

I recently finished Tracy Kidder’s book Among Schoolchildren, which, alas, I have no idea how I made it through seven years of teaching without ever coming up in conversation once. Five Books brought it to my attention with the prompt, “Tracy Kidder has also acknowledged his debt to John McPhee. Tell us about Among Schoolchildren.” It’s an incredible read for a teacher, highlighting both the terrific resolve of those who spend their days unrecognized in the classroom and the mindset that can often drag teachers (and students) down. I’ll be posting a few quotes from it over the next few weeks that jumped out at me.

After reflecting on contracts signed by teachers in the 1930s limiting their ability to marry, Kidder writes:

And nowadays teachers are allowed to fall in love. Their social status has not improved immensely, though. Male teachers and perhaps increasingly female ones, who now have other options, are still regarded by many people as belonging to what [Willard] Waller in the 1930s called the “failure belt.” People teach, this theory goes, because they can’t do anything else. There is a modern stereotype – it has not been quantified, but every teacher knows about it – that depicts teachers as numbskulls who work short hours, get long vacations, do lousy jobs, and then walk picket lines, whining about how badly they are treated.

This perception seems pervasive in much of the political discourse about teachers (and increasingly professors), but there is also a new stereotype, which I’ll call “that must be so rewarding.” As in, at a cocktail party, in response to the answer to the question “what do you do?”, “I’m a teacher”, “oh, that must be so rewarding.” Different from what Kidder describes in the 1980s, but not much less dismissive.

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