In Defense of Alcoholic Teachers

The spectral figure of the Alcoholic Teacher roams ominously through debates over public schools. Among the education reform crowd, who take for granted that the nation’s public schools are infested with bad teachers, tales of the Alcoholic Teacher make for a high fraction of the horror stories. Teachers who drink are used as case studies in school failure, not only in alarmist conservative outlets like Fox News and the Daily Caller, but in leftier publications like The New Yorker and NPR. That the tenure system keeps such people employed is deemed prima facie evidence of its absurdity.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is the latest to deploy the trope. In a recent column ostensibly softening his stance against labor unions, Kristof made clear that while he had come around on the benefits of private-sector unions, their public-sector counterparts (such as teachers’ unions) were still rife with intolerable practices. “The abuses are real,” Kristof wrote, giving the example of “a union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her.” No matter how sympathetic to labor unions we might be, Kristof suggests, surely we can all agree that these teachers should be rooted out.

But in fact, we can’t all agree. I can’t agree, because the best teacher I ever had was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was that teacher worth remembering: he got me started in debate, taught me half the words I know, and introduced me to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. I never knew anyone who so completely respected his students, who was more genuinely interested in what they thought, or more confident in their capabilities. Yet this great man had human failings, and years after I left school, when he had his 2nd DUI arrest and it became clear that he would finally be kept from teaching, he killed himself.

When my teacher was arrested, the online comments section for the local newspaper was filled with denunciations that echoed the reformist line. “Why was he allowed in a classroom?” “Why did it take this long to get rid of an obvious alcoholic?” and so forth. They took these questions for unanswerable indictments of the school system, but I can unashamedly reply to both of them. He was allowed in a classroom because he was a beloved, generous, and brilliant man. And it took so long because a teacher’s union was there to protect him from having his livelihood taken.

This personal element may explain why, when I hear about some addled chemistry instructor found unconscious in the beaker-closet, my first reaction is not to think of ways to fire them, but about how to devise a system that can treat and care for them. For those teachers, like mine, to whom teaching is life, losing the job can mean losing one’s life. The power to fire somebody is therefore the power to harm them immensely, and those who say “Why can’t we fire alcoholic teachers?” should therefore be willing to say what they mean: “Why can’t we ruin the lives of alcoholic teachers?” And if we believe, as I do, that alcoholism is often as involuntarily acquired as cancer, we are going even further, and asking permission to ruin someone’s life because of their disease.

It shouldn’t be necessary to issue reminders of alcoholism’s ubiquity. In the Boston area, where I live now, there are 2,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held every week. One-third of Americans are current or former alcohol abusers. As ever and always, drink ruins lives, and its ravages demand the kind of Christian compassion that is so common in American public rhetoric and yet so absent in the country’s callous economic practices.

Ironically, too, the stresses of teaching itself are often a key reason educators are driven to alcoholism. Teaching is a harder profession than is recognized by the “tech millionaires” so keen to fix it though the elimination of job protections, and alcoholism is more a product of our dire school system than its cause. There is thus even more reason to respond to problems of positively, through treatment and the elimination of job-related root causes, instead of automatically deploying the blunt instrument of the pink-slip.

When we toss around calls to fire people, we are playing with lives. When I hear Nicholas Kristof casually villainizing alcoholic teachers, as if there could be no dispute among the reasonable-minded that such people deserve termination, I hear him saying (like the bloodthirsty online horde) that it was right and good that my teacher should be fired. And when Time magazine portrays “bad teachers” as “rotten apples,” they dehumanize those who are often weak and in need. Alcoholic teachers are not an all-purpose bogeyman to be wielded as a cudgel against labor unions; in fact, they are often excellent educators, whose flaws and disorders deserve the care of a humane system.