This morning on my Twitter feed, I discovered a link to an article in The Washington Post about a group of teachers at a high school in Fairfax, VA, that chose a unique way to protest their earnings and lack of pay raises. In order to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with salaries that are less than what professionals should earn, they decided to dress in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, i.e., less-than-professional (pun intended) attire. Their idea has spread, and teachers from other schools are beginning to emulate their example.
Reading the article made me wonder what message students will take from the faculty who responded to their circumstances in this way. Haven’t all of us former and current school counselors, teachers, and administrators consistently admonished students to “take the high road,” “just walk away,” or, becoming biblical, “turn the other cheek” when a potential fight, episode of bullying, or other ugliness threatened to engulf them. What about that other familiar admonishment, “don’t allow yourself to be pulled down to that person’s level?” Did/do we mean them, and do they apply only to people who have not yet graduated from high school?
I keep wondering how teachers expect to be treated more professionally when they act (and dress) the opposite and how it would have affected both them and their students if they had chosen differently. What if they had decided to embrace more fully the appearance of a professional and explained why to their students? High school students are quite capable of understanding that teachers are frustrated by financial challenges. They are equally able to appreciate the seemingly illogical response of teachers increasing, rather than decreasing, their professionalism in the face of indifference to their economic woes. The teachers’ unwillingness to sacrifice their professionalism, regardless of inadequate pay, would have been an amazing testament to their strength in adversity and a remarkable instance of modeling to students the philosophies they advocate. Isn’t that the more powerful message students are worthy of receiving and one that might shape their future attitudes in the workplace? It seems like a profound teachable moment might have been carelessly frittered away.
While I fully concur that public school teachers, counselors, and other professionals are seriously underpaid and that they deserve greater respect both in treatment and remuneration, I also believe that the teachers in Fairfax could have taken the unlikely measure of extending their professionalism rather than reducing it and achieved a more lasting positive impact on their students and all other observers of their actions.
I wish they had.