September 10, 1979 12:00 PM

As Willard H. McGuire took over as president of the 1.8 million-member National Education Association last week, teachers were out picketing for better pay and benefits in eight states. It was not an auspicious beginning for the school year. McGuire, a 51-year-old junior high algebra and Spanish teacher from Long Prairie, Minn. (and for the past five years vice-president of the NEA), enjoyed hearing from old friend Fritz Mondale: “Finally a vice-president from Minnesota has become a president!” Aside from that moment of levity, McGuire foresaw many problems in the nation’s school system, caused by plummeting teacher morale. He knows the problems firsthand. Born the son of a shoe repairman, he was high school class valedictorian, graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul and got an M.Ed. before putting in 24 years in the classroom. “I didn’t win any student polls,” he admits, “but early on they dedicated a yearbook to me.” In the 1950s concern for working conditions and quality education made him an activist in the local teachers’ association (“I guess I wanted to have a hand in my destiny”). Now on leave from his school district, McGuire lives in Arlington, Va. with wife Helen, 50, a high school sweetheart, and daughter Lynn, 17. There he discussed with Barbara Rowes of PEOPLE the growing malady of “teacher burn-out,” a problem he believes “threatens to reach hurricane force if it isn’t checked soon.”

What is “teacher burn-out”?

I’m talking about the stress, tension and anxiety which is driving teachers out of the field. A third of them, according to an NEA survey, would not enter teaching if they were starting their careers again.

What causes such widespread teacher dissatisfaction?

Thousands are in desperate need of help. They can’t sleep, often feel depressed and are physically rundown. Basically the problems stem from teachers’ not knowing how to cope with violence, vandalism, disruptive students, inadequate salaries, involuntary transfers, oversized classes, excessive paperwork, standardized tests and the lack of support from school administrators and community groups.

How serious is student violence?

More than 110,000 teachers—or one in 20—were physically attacked by students last year. Only half the teachers who reported attacks against them were satisfied with support from administrators, many of whom refuse to report violent incidents for fear of tarnishing the school’s reputation.

How does this differ from classroom mischief of the past?

Pranks have been part and parcel of the school scene for centuries. But today we’re dealing with hard crime: assaults, murders, robberies, extortion and rampant vandalism. Some teachers have begun to evidence psychological symptoms similar to “combat neurosis.” Often they face real danger. A dramatic example of this took place in Austin, Texas. A bright 14-year-old student came to school with a rifle and shot one of his teachers to death in front of his horrified classmates. The boy is now in a mental institution.

How has the nature of school vandalism changed?

A generation ago a window might accidentally get broken during a ball game. But today school authorities often return one morning to find literally hundreds of windows broken. This is high-cost destruction. In addition, more than 25 percent of the teachers in this country suffered damage to or loss of personal property in their schools during the year.

In general, how are relations between students and teachers?

In the past there was almost an unquestioning attitude on the part of the students. When I was growing up in Minnesota, there was a healthy respect for education and educators. Education was the foundation of our republic, the key to upward mobility. The teacher was right. The school was right. That probably was going too far, but today that respect is dying or already dead. As many as 75 percent of teachers now say that discipline is their No. 1 problem.

Why is there a decline in authority?

Virtually all institutions are being questioned by the public. Schools are of course not immune. They have been the subjects of the same criticism and lack of trust. And students, who are raised in this environment, pick up on this. The genesis of all of it is frustration, frustration at school, frustration with life and society. It can find expression in lighting a fire in a wastepaper basket or stealing expensive equipment from the classroom.

How do most students react when a confrontation occurs?

A decade ago peer pressure was always on the side of the teacher when a disruption broke out in the classroom. Today that peer pressure has shifted to the side of the disruptive student.

Is violence largely the problem of inner-city schools?

No. That’s an important point. The blackboard jungle of the 1950s is everywhere in the 1970s—rural, suburban, urban, even in the highest-income communities. Last Christmas vacation, in fact, it happened right here in Fairfax County when two students and a recent grad set fire to a high school, causing $4.5 million worth of damage. Even after they were released on bond, one of them was involved in a second incident. At night, he and some others spun their car wheels on the assistant principal’s lawn and did other damage to his property. This was in one of the better school districts in this country!

How are teachers coping with drugs in the schools?

There is no pat way to handle it. Not only is the teacher unsure about what to do, but society in general is unsure. Experimentation with marijuana often begins in grades four, five and six. The difficulty is that the teacher has to make very quick judgments about what to do when she smells students smoking marijuana in the bathroom or the hallways. It would be deceptively easy to believe that all the teacher has to do is remove those students who are high. Each school employee along the line has a problem. The principal has a problem, because he or she needs support from the community and law enforcement and perhaps isn’t getting it. What we find is a new ball game, where the various players don’t know what the others are going to do. That leads to a very uneasy situation.

What is different about this generation of students?

A generation ago we had a high dropout rate in high schools—only 50 percent of students stayed in through the age of 17. Now we have a retention rate of at least 85 percent—and in many cases better than that. This means that problem students who previously dropped out are now being kept in school. In general, I do believe this benefits society in the long run, but in the short run the size of classes has increased, giving the teacher less time to interact with the students.

Why are thousands deserting the public schools, like the former Florida “Teacher of the Year” who is quitting in frustration after 18 years?

Any ill that society discovers, it now turns over to the schools. In addition to teaching students to read, write and do arithmetic computations, there have been increasing pressures to meet other needs—driver training, family education, vocational guidance, life adjustment, drug education, needs of the handicapped. The burden of filling out forms and other paperwork falls on the classroom teacher, who now has to meet deadlines for local, state and national records as well as prepare lessons and teach. Many teachers think it’s just not worth it, and are looking for other ways to earn a living.

Is job security a problem?

There were heavy layoffs in the early 1970s. Today the greatest insecurities arise around tax cut legislation. As late as last month, some teachers didn’t know if they had a job for this school year. In many cases they resigned rather than wait around until the last minute.

Have salaries improved?

The high point in real income for teachers was 1969-71. From the time of the 1971 wage-price freeze, teachers have been losing ground. In at least eight states we actually have teachers on food stamps. Teachers have even had to buy their own supplies and paper for the classroom.

How can we rehabilitate the profession?

First we must admit we have a problem. That is the most difficult part—getting the community to acknowledge the problems of violence, vandalism, teacher stress and now burn-out.

What is the NEA specifically doing to improve the situation?

We had such an overwhelming demand from teachers for instruction about discipline that we have started discipline workshops throughout the country. We have even prepared a “discipline kit” to sensitize the communities to the problems in the schools. These are being sent out to all of our nearly 10,000 local associations. In Colorado, a new law requires administrators to report attacks on teachers to law enforcement agencies. That state also is planning a hot line so teachers can get immediate counseling—something we’d like to see done across the country.

Does teaching have a future?

We have a sense of mission which I did not detect some years ago. I am very optimistic that there will be a tomorrow.

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