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Stories of students attacking teachers aren’t new, or even shocking. But recent cases and the media coverage and public reaction they have garnered has once again highlighted a crisis in public education. Too many people blame a lack of discipline, absentee parents or lazy teachers for the obstacles in schools. In reality, it’s much more than that. The real issue is an identity crisis. What exactly is the job of a teacher supposed to be? Judging from the tenor of the most recent news stories, it is apparent that no one has a clue.

In one breath, teachers are told to focus on academics. History teachers should teach students how to evaluate historical sources for bias and synthesize information across time periods, while science instructors need to rigorously teach scientific methods. This priority has been reinforced with 20 years of fretting over test scores and accountability. A teacher’s value has been distilled down to how their students perform on tests; their positions threatened by bad scores. With this approach to schools, there isn’t time or space for shenanigans from students.

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In the next breath, teachers confronted with enraged students in crisis are asked to transform in an instant. De-escalate. Be the counselor or social worker. Figure out what’s at the root of a student’s lack of success in the classroom. Why is Johnny yelling in Mr. Johnson’s face? Why is Karen always talking back? Why has Morgan been defiant and aggressive every day in science class but not in math? Only when a teacher has taken time to understand a student’s social and emotional needs can they teach. The problem is the narrow focus on academics means that when students lash out at teachers verbally and physically, teachers are asked to deploy skills beyond their training. These aren’t academic issues. These are multifaceted issues that go far beyond teaching students skills related to numeracy, history or the scientific method.

Is this a teacher’s job? No one knows. More importantly, no one appears to be trying to figure it out either.

No public servant has a more opaque job. Public works crews keep our thoroughfares and roads operational and able to move people and goods. Our servicemen and women work to protect our national security interests, while mail carriers facilitate communication and commerce. Ask people about what teachers do and the answers vary from smoking cigarettes in the faculty room to playing saint on the playground or savior in science class.

Teachers aren’t the only ones to ever face an identity crisis. In the late 1990s, the Apple computer company was a floundering mess. CEO Steve Jobs returned to the company and trimmed spending on research and development of frivolous products to build a pathway for Apple to create revolutionary products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad. We need a similar effort in public education because all the reform in the world can’t fix a murky mission. We have to figure out what it is we expect our teachers to be doing.

If we plan to double down on the academic emphasis of our teachers, we need to recognize that some students will struggle. We will need to increase the number of alternative settings for students unable to comply with the academic rigors of the school day. Their problems are beyond the scope of a classroom teacher in this model.

If we want teachers catering to the whole student — academic, social, emotional needs and beyond — teachers must teach fewer students in smaller classes. We need more counselors, social workers and building level administrators to help deal with all the needs students have outside of academics.

In short, whatever we decide will be disruptive. But the costs of continuing on the current path is exacerbating the teacher shortage. A 2016 study by The Learning Policy Institute recommended improving teacher retention with more robust training and preparation programs, expanding on-the-job mentoring and creating a national market for teachers. Yet all this is futile if we don’t pinpoint a teacher’s job responsibilities before pouring money into preparation and mentoring programs. Without that it’ll be for naught.

With teacher shortages next year predicted to reach into the hundreds of thousands by organizations like the Learning Policy Institute and the Economic Policy Institute, we need to work quickly to determine what we expect from teachers. The alternative is to see more reports of lackluster student progress, exhausted teachers exiting the profession and behavioral outbursts that disrupt schools and classrooms.

Adam Sutton (mistersutton1@gmail.com) is a Baltimore County Public School teacher and writer.

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