‘Atlas Shrugged’ Offers Timely Message for Teaching Profession

Published May 16, 2011

Almost as alarming as the rate at which children drop out of high school is the rate at which young teachers drop out of the profession. According to the National Education Association (NEA), nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

The union says low wages and poor working conditions cause this scandalous turnover rate. But that cannot be universally true for the thousands who enter the teaching profession because they truly want to instill a love of learning in the hearts and minds of a generation, only to abandon the job in disgust a few years later.

Although some young people may find they are simply not cut out for teaching as part of the routine trial-and-error that occurs in any industry, it seems unlikely this could explain a 50 percent attrition rate in a profession that—the NEA’s special pleading notwithstanding—provides above-average wages, excellent benefits, and secure employment. No, something else is at work here.

Best Teachers ‘Shrug’
I reflected on this problem after seeing the movie Atlas Shrugged recently. The film, the first of a planned trilogy, hews closely to Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic and controversial novel. But you don’t have to be a Rand fan to appreciate the movie or its message.

The question asked and answered in the film is this: What would happen if the most productive members of society went on strike and dropped out of society?

Life seems to be imitating art in the teaching profession.

In the movie, productive people are hounded out of their businesses by the government and by rent-seekers who leverage the power of the state to harass their competitors, gain favors to protect them from competition, or both.

Centralized bureaucracies that place process over progress preclude people from plying their trades and employing their talents freely. For millions of disaffected and former teachers, this must sound eerily familiar.

Unions Protect Status Quo

Union spokesmen argue that becoming a great teacher requires great diligence, talent, and dedication. I agree. I am on their side.

Indeed, who could possibly disagree?

The answer, it turns out, is … the teachers unions. After all, teachers unions are the defenders of the system of centralized bureaucracies that stifle innovation and impose rigidity in the classroom. It’s the union that puts process over progress. The teachers unions are the source of what they lament, and are driving great teachers out of the profession.

Why Kids Love Athletes
In the movie Up in the Air, the George Clooney character observes, “You know why kids love athletes? Kids love them because they follow their dreams.”

You know why we have been conditioned to love teachers? Because the great ones help kids follow their dreams.

But that love has largely gone unrequited by school systems that seemingly exist to stamp out creativity and standardize mediocrity.

Preventing Premature Retirements
Those who claim to represent the best interests of teachers have debased the teaching profession. Instead of fostering a profession that demands exquisite skill developed over time and refined through practice, the centralized bureaucracies (read: school systems) set expectations of teachers at the same low level as the expectations for their students.

The systems limit individuality, prevent genuine accountability, and undermine the pursuit of excellence. Teachers are treated as day laborers. Punch a clock. Do your shift. Take the summer off. Move the next class down the assembly line. Repeat for a couple of decades. Retire to the Sun Belt.

Across race, gender, religion, party, ideology, and station in life, there is virtual unanimity regarding the importance of teacher quality. The impact of a bad teacher is quantifiable and indisputable.

Thus the nonchalant reaction to the exodus from the profession of so many so quickly is all the more curious.

Giving Up Their Dreams
We debate endlessly about compensation packages, work rules, class sizes, and curriculum. We hear from politicians, pundits, school boards, teachers’ unions, and editorial boards.

Perhaps we should ask those who believed teaching was their calling and who were quite good at it why they left the profession—”went Galt,” to use Atlas Shrugged’s parlance—anyway?

Maybe leaving had less to do with their pension multiplier and more with the lack of opportunities to demonstrate their greatness by setting the children under their tutelage on a path to their own.

It might be worth remembering that teachers who left the profession had dreams, too. It might also be worth rethinking the setup of school systems that lead talented teachers to give up on their dreams—and countless children in the process.

Several years ago, ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons wrote that when Michael Jordan retired from basketball for the first time in 1993, his coach, Phil Jackson, tried to coax him back by suggesting Jordan had been given a gift that “transcended sports and veered into artistry.” Jordan’s retirement, Jackson said, would deprive people of enjoying his gift.

Jordan had a rare stage on which to share his gift within a system that encouraged the fullest expression of it. Perhaps it is because our teachers do not that so many retire prematurely.

Dan Proft ([email protected]) is a host and featured political commentator on WLS radio in Chicago.