Last night’s episode of How I Met Your Mother features an argument between Marshall and Lily about her career that speaks volumes about the current state of America’s educational system. (In case you don’t watch the show, Marshall and Lily are college sweethearts who are now married thirty-somethings with a baby—Marshall is a lawyer and Lily is a kindergarten teacher).

Lily is upset because she’s told by an acquaintance that she’s “just a kindergarten teacher” and the following exchange ensues:

Marshall: Oh my God! Lily! What is the big deal? Ok, so what? So he said you were just a kindergarten teacher. Why do you let that bother you?

Lily: Because he was right; I am just a kindergarten teacher. And, yes, I have a degree in art history, and I was meant to do something with it—but I didn’t. Somewhere along the line I forgot to pursue my dream and, and now I’m old and I’m a Mom and it’s just too late for me.

At this point—particularly knowing the cutesy relationship they have and how much Marshall adores Lily—I expected Marshall to respond by saying something like “Lily, that’s one of my favorite things about you: few people are more important or incredible than kindergarten teachers.”

Marshall instead responds by soothingly saying “No, it’s not too late. You’re going to quit your job, tomorrow, and you’re gonna go back and pick up right where you left off with that art stuff.”

Maybe I’m overreacting to a few moments in a sitcom, but this seems indicative of one of the largest problems with our efforts to improve our educational system. Virtually all the reform efforts of the past few years have focused on teacher quality because everybody agrees it’s so important; but nobody’s willing to actually treat teachers like they’re important.

After all, who’s going to want to be just a teacher? Certainly not the best and the brightest. And what teacher is going to be empowered or respected enough to change the system if teachers are viewed as second-class citizens? If we want to recruit, retain, and develop the best teaching corps in the world (like we say we do), we can’t keep demeaning and demoralizing them. If we’re going to justify every new pet policy (which always seem to place teachers under even more scrutiny) by talking of teachers’ vast importance, we can’t then act like they aren’t worthy of our attention.

Our teachers deserve better. Our kids deserve better. Our country deserves better. But we won’t get better if quitting is the only way for teachers to reach their potential.