The False Cult of Effort, the Gender Gap, and K-12 Teacher-Bashing

While the U.S. presidency is rarified air, the presidential election often reflects the best and worst of the American character.

As the country sits in the cusp of the end of the first black president’s administration and the likelihood of electing the first female president, what does the current election show about the lingering privilege of being white, male, and straight in the U.S.?

Being black, brown, female, gay, or transgender requires perfection while being white, male, and heterosexual allows any transgression to be excused.

Hillary must be perfect (her email controversy is oddly identical to millions of erased emails from private servers under George W. Bush, although that is of no real concern to the public or the media, for example), but Trump’s admitted behavior as a sexual predator is swept aside as just a man being one of the boys.

Yes, the glorious sanctity of the office of president must not be sullied—although the Republican Party has elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and W. Bush, a who’s who of unethical personal and political behaviors?

And in this dynamic of privilege we find the cult of effort—the implication that all these powerful white males are in power because of effort, because they deserve the success, earned the success.

Recall that Trump built this off the pittance of an inherited few million. …

On a smaller scale, then, is the K-12 teacher, a profession trapped in the cult of effort and the gender gap.

Having spent my career in part as a K-12 public school teacher and now as a tenured full professor, I have witnessed first-hand a powerful and ugly dynamic.

First, let me work backward.

My university has only about 30% female faculty, which reflects a male norm (linked with a white norm) of university professors:


Few professions have greater professional autonomy that being a professor. I can assure you that rarely do people even bother telling a professor what to do—and among those few, virtually none have any real influence.

The profession of being a professor is a white, male world of autonomy and significant prestige.

As above, there is also a false cult of effort among professors—the professorate, so goes the message, is mostly white and male because of the hard work of those white men.

And if you doubt that, listen carefully to the white male response to initiatives for increasing the diversity of professors: We must maintain our rigorous standards for hiring! they shout.

The cult of effort, the cult of rigor—these are codes for maintaining privilege.

The inverse of this dynamic is at the K-12 level of teaching, a work force still dominated by women:


For K-12 teachers, historically and especially over the past two or three decades, the cult of effort has imposed on the American public that schools are failing primarily because of a slack teacher force (read: a mostly female teacher force), and the way to reform that lazy work force is to raise standard! and demand more!

Let us imagine for a moment that gender divide between the supreme autonomy of mostly male professors and the nearly absent professional autonomy and ridiculous accountability leveled at mostly female K-12 teachers.

The entirely inexcusable “no excuses” model implemented in high-poverty schools serving mostly black and brown students has also become the default environment of being a K-12 teacher: high demand, nearly superhuman demand that erases all professional autonomy and most of the human dignity of teaching.

Yes, teaching K-12 is very hard, but the cult of effort is mostly a lie, and the current high-stakes accountability paradigm is a central cause for driving away teachers.

The accountability era has intensified the historical marginalizing of K-12 teaching as just a woman’s profession; the stakes have been artificially increased while teacher autonomy has been even further eroded.

As a result, K-12 teachers have their work scripted and then are badgered for poor outcomes from the practices they didn’t even choose to implement.

The public and in-school environments for K-12 teachers are toxic—unprofessional and dehumanizing. Administrators who can go to the restroom any time they please demand teachers remain at their doors between classes and never leave a class unattended—relegating basic bodily functions to 20-minute lunch periods (if they are free of students) and planning time.

This reality cannot be disentangled from the gender gap reflected between professors in higher education and K-12 teachers—as well as the current presidential campaign.

K-12 teacher bashing is nested in sexism—assumptions that women are unable and unwilling to make the effort needed to educate children; and thus, K-12 teachers need to be scripted and held to high standards of accountability.

In the political and educational worlds, however, those demanding that accountability and driving the criticism are often far above the standards they espouse.

And that is the ugly truth about women, so-called racial minorities, and gay/transgendered people who must be perfect while white, straight men are forgiven for any and every transgression.

Our democracy suffers under that inequity of privilege and the profession of K-12 teaching is on life support because of the essentially nasty environment surrounding day-to-day teaching.

Democracy and K-12 teaching both require and deserve an atmosphere of patience, compassion, and kindness—traits marginalized by toxic masculinity and white privilege in order to maintain the unearned status of power in the U.S.

At the very least, no one should have to be perfect or everyone should have to be perfect.

Immediately, then, let’s confront how terribly flawed white, straight male leadership has been and is currently—disturbingly personified by Trump himself.

Next, the false cult of effort must end, replaced by the acknowledgement of privilege as central to who has power and why.

With the false cult of effort unmasked, the gender gap can then be erased as well.

From political leadership to the teaching of children in K-12 schools, we will all benefit greatly from the rich diversity of who can and will lead and teach us—especially if that leadership and teaching are rooted in patience and kindness, especially if basic human dignity and autonomy are promised to all.

3 thoughts on “The False Cult of Effort, the Gender Gap, and K-12 Teacher-Bashing”

  1. “(her email controversy is oddly identical to millions of erased emails from private servers under George W. Bush, although that is of no real concern to the public or the media, for example)”

    This line drives me absolutely crazy. I was one of millions of liberals (or “liberals” apparently) having absolute apoplexy when Bush did it. So now that it’s “our guy” (“our woman”) doing it, I’m supposed to shrug and say, “well, heck Bush did it”, like that makes it okay? I can’t be the only honest liberal willing to admit that since it was wrong when Bush did it, it’s still wrong when Hillary does it, can I?

  2. As a woman teaching writing and literature in a Lutheran high school, I am especially moved by your perception. I must walk two hallways and take a flight of stairs to get to the nearest toilet, and I have twenty-four minutes to travel the length of the entire school to get to the lunch room, to eat and to return to my room ready for my next class. I am sixty. For several years, we went without hot water in the teacher’s restroom during a time when the school added a whirlpool to the boy’s training room. At one point they took out the ice machine in the teacher’s office because it was a “luxury.” The school board and governing committee of that board are predominately white, male business owners, high level executives or pastors. Their attitude toward teachers is that of factory owners to factory workers. A few years ago, they added an extra period to the school day so that we would have an eight-hour day, in their minds a reasonable request. When I wrote a letter to them tallying the number of hours I spend grading papers and satirically asking for extra-curricular duty pay, they thought I was really asking for the extra money and pointedly did not respond. In my twenty-three years here, most of my requests or comments have been either overtly ignored or repeated by a male administrator in the room, who then took credit for the idea. [This tactic was recently discussed in an article by a woman in the Obama administration who outlined what the women in the President’s inner circle did to circumvent this usurpation of women’s ideas.] This newly instituted, eight-hour day does not factor in, of course, the extra-curricular duties [sponsoring teams, clubs, and student organizations] our call [contract] papers require us to perform.

    In my school your concept of the fallacy of effort manifests itself in viewing male teachers [especially those who coach or have partial administrative duties] as those who need the most unassigned time. They are not held to the factory worker, clock in, clock out standard. For example, I must be at my desk at 7:30 A.M. each morning, but I regularly am on duty when no administrator is on site. When I began using Google Docs to track and comment on student writing from my desk [a method that is twice as efficient and allows me to view twice the amount of writing as walking around the room], I had to have my principal view this method in action and give his official OK to continue. I had one parent tell me that the reason I use Google Docs is that it is easier for me–implying that view of women teachers as lazy you talk about in your article.

    Indeed, the most radical change in teaching I have experienced in over thirty-two years of teaching high school is the parents’ perception of their right to direct my actions with the implication that I will default to the easiest path for me to take if they do not stay on top of me. I have had to defend my actions in emails that required Krav Maga skills, all without the protection I should have from my administration [I recently had to resort to threatening a lawyer with one rabid mother]. The demands made have reached the level you describe as ” nearly superhuman …[and] that [erase] all professional autonomy and most of the human dignity of teaching.” Bear in mind that as a Lutheran teacher, I am free of some of the governmental hoops of fire that people who have never spent a day of their lives in a classroom as a teacher create for those who choose to spend their lives there teaching.

    While over the course of thirty-two years my motivations for teaching have changed several times, at the moment my main motivation is to send students from my classroom at least questioning some of the status quo in which they have been raised. I am planting seeds that I may never see come to fruition, but I am still planting them.

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