Most anyone working in public schools understands the main title of Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz’s book, Blaming Teachers, deeply and immediately, even before they’ve read the book. Fingers are too frequently pointed at teachers for all the problems of education, even when the expectations are unrealistic for what they can do to fix societal ills and when resources are too meager. Modern teachers know this feeling, but as Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz shows us, this is a story as old as organized public schooling itself.

The Virginia Tech School of Education was fortunate to have Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz, an associate professor of educational foundations and research at the University of North Dakota, join us to talk about her book on April 29. In addition to giving an animated and deeply interesting presentation, she responded to questions from the audience of assembled faculty, staff, students, and members of the community.

The impulse to blame teachers — whether for their supposed poor general quality, lack of training, laziness, greediness, and on and on — has a lengthy history, even back to Horace Mann’s early attempts to establish public school in the 19th century. Nearly always, though, teachers are blamed for society’s ills as a way to deflect blame from elsewhere, usually from the person doing the blaming. It’s easy to score political points using teachers as scapegoats, especially when they are isolated in classrooms or often banned from organizing. Teacher blaming is easier to do than fully funding our schools and other social infrastructure, anyway!

Ironically, Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz argued, the blaming of teachers frequently appears under the guise of trying to increase the professionalism of teaching. Rather than giving teachers autonomy, supporting robust professional development, and attracting teachers with high pay — as frequently happens in professions like medicine and law — the version of professionalization for teachers has tended toward restricting teacher voice and trying to “teacher-proof” schools and curricula.

Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz also points out an ugly side of how our teaching system has been structured through sexism and racism. The blaming of teachers is often premised upon the profession’s large number of women, a situation purposely created to lower costs and to provide supposedly maternal influence for children. At the same time, teachers of color have been systematically excluded from teaching — except, paradoxically, in segregated schools prior to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision.

What made the book and her talk so powerful, to my mind, was that Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz did not simply catalog the ways teachers have been blamed throughout history, but she also laid out the underlying dynamics of professionalization movements, testing, pay for performance, and other so-called reforms that continue to be raised today.

Amidst a worldwide pandemic, why aren’t teachers consulted on how to safely and effectively reopen schools? We’ve seen as a global community just how much schools contribute to the functioning of our society and economy when schools came to a halt for the pandemic — feeding students, making it possible for parents to work, shepherding students into the magical processes of reading and calculating, providing socialization, and so much more — and yet many political leaders continue to disregard teachers’ expertise or blame them for their hesitance to reopen schools without necessary resources to protect them, their families, or the children in their care.

Even with so much to be frustrated by in this history and current reality — a story Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz aptly calls “Sisyphean” — she also left us with great notes of hope about the future. This history can be learned from, and recent years have seen teachers all over the country standing up for what kids need from their schools and for what they themselves need to make teaching a sustainable — and, yes, professional — career.

Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower, PhD, is a professor in the foundations of education at the Virginia Tech School of Education, where he teaches graduate courses in gender and education, the sociology of education, and qualitative research.

Dr. D’Amico Pawlewicz’s book, Blaming Teachers: Professionalization Policies and the Failure of Reform in American History, won the 2021 Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award.