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  • Writer's pictureRachel Beck

Death of a Salesman and the Plight of the Teacher

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

"Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." -- Arthur Miller

Historically, America is the place of dreams. The theme in Death of a Salesman is about the death of the American Dream, but it is also about telling the truth about ourselves and our lives and our country. Miller’s use of realism to explore what happens when we get lost in ideals makes the play that much more poignant. This was a theme close to Miller’s heart as he had experienced first hand what happens when you criticize America during his own brush against McCarthyism. His life span was that of the twentieth century, a great time of identity and a great loss of identity.

However, Americans have a hard time facing realism, especially in education: the reality that there needs to be smaller classrooms; the reality that teachers can’t afford to retire with the rising costs of insurance; the reality that teachers salaries are not keeping up with the rising cost of housing or inflation; and the reality that we are not getting smarter under the guise of standardized testing-- the one thing our government does not shy away from funding. The reality is that we’re doing more harm than good by painting a picture that we are becoming better.

Students used to ask me: “Why are there so many old subs at this school?” I would respond “Because they are retired teachers.” Then, they would ask why anyone would to sub at their age? “They don’t,” I say, “They have to work because they can’t live on teacher retirement.” After little more evaluation I assert, “They will probably have to work until they’re dead.”

Perhaps the most important scene that demonstrates the flaw in the American Dream is when Willy Loman meets with his old boss’ son, Howard, who now runs the company. “I was at the firm when your father carried you in as baby,” Willy reminds him while trying to save his job. Even though Willy knew Howard as a baby, Howard patronizes Willy by calling him “Kid.” He also lectures Willy on how he needs to pull his own weight when Howard simply inherited the business.

No doubt this is how many teachers feel about new administrators. We have administrators who have taught less than five years (at least of few of those years some were sitting at their teacher desks, working on a Masters) now qualified to tell veteran teachers how to be better. The state helps them by creating an impossible evaluation rubric so that teachers can only do a “Proficient” job at best (Rock-Star status), which enables them to hire more inexperienced administrators, admin who have the luxury of hanging out in a central administration building, often a created position, focusing on one micro-area within district administration while throwing more balls into the mix for the teacher to juggle.

My theory behind the “Proficient” model is that it exists so the state can continue to blame teachers rather than admit the system, a system they continue to perpetuate, is flawed. We are blaming teachers for their inability to juggle dozens of balls in a single classroom evaluation: differentiated learning styles; group work and collaboration; objectives aligned with standards; following student accommodations and modifications; creating an engaging, student-centered activities with choice and without too much instruction or lecturing; giving constructive feedback while encouraging students to self-correct; 100% student participation etc., etc., etc. all for 30 students in a 40 minute period.

If you do the math, in a typical class period, you have less than 2 minutes per student, a process that is then repeated another 5 times a day. And when does a teacher create these intricate, multi-faceted lesson plans? The end of the day is for tutoring, parent phone calls, administrative meetings with no chance to grade because the conference period has been taken over by PLC’s (Professional Learning Communities), mostly to analyze useless and often unreadable data so that we can create more “mind-numbing” (a student’s description) work that will improve our standardized scores. And, after all that work, the teacher is deemed “Proficient” while district earns an A on accountability ratings.

Besides, the “Proficient model” is incredibly dis-empowering-- ask any successful corporation and they would say this method is stupid. Take Steve Jobs’ classic quote: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” This used to be the teacher-principal model. Now, it’s the other way around. In my experience, I’ve had to try to convince people with doctorate degrees in education that reading classic literature is more valuable than simply reading excerpts attached to multiple-choice questions or just reiterating what they already know by doing an “engaging” gallery walk. As a result, I’m evaluated as still “developing.” This is why I’m skeptical of merit pay for teachers. How can we have “merit pay” without merit?

Even this power struggle is illumined by reading literature. For example, in Death of a Salesman, If you watch closely, Howard is constantly shooing Willy away, shutting him up. In a play, you don’t have a narrator explaining personality traits to you, so you have to see all action as symbolic. The recorder, Howard is so impressed with, represents the new technology that people value over personal, human service. When Willy accidentally touches it, it breaks. Sort of like me with a Smartboard.

“You see in those days, there was personality in it,” Willy says to Howard. “There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it.”

Willy finally breaks down and says, “I put 35 years in this firm and now I can’t pay my insurance-- you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away-- A man is not a piece of fruit!”

When I show this scene to students, inevitably some students start to cry. I think the play helps students feel more empathy for their parents. Because it’s not just people who are poor who are suffering. This play is about the middle-class, the ones who did everything they were supposed to do and yet still can’t pay their insurance.

As Jack Burden said in All the King’s Men, “The truth brings all things to light.” Soon, we will see the light when we have to face the reality of the effects of adults raised on standardized testing. We will have to realize the hard way what comes of a nation when we de-emphasize the bounty and reward of literature and humanities-- How else will you teach them: A man is not a piece of fruit?

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