After crunching some numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blogger Matt Johnston determined that roughly 2.2 percent of America’s workers are teachers. So he wonders, how come teachers keep complaining that they’re not respected as professionals?
The teachers themselves have the power to change the perception of their occupation, from one where they don't get the respect they demand and perhaps deserve, to one on par with the respect paid to doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers etc.
When someone in the TLN daily discussion group shared Matt’s blog link, the replies weren’t long in coming, both on our email listserv and at Matt’s blog. Here’s some of the listserv dialogue:
OK, I was up for the challenge of answering Matt's questions this morning. Then I began to contemplate the differences between teachers and the other professionals he lists so I could try to figure out WHY teachers don't get the respect we deserve. The difference is the organization of schools and education.
Think back to when teachers taught in stand alone schools — you know, all grades in one room, no principal, no mandated textbooks. Just teach kids the basics and how to survive. Weren't teachers given respect then? My great-grandmother certainly got some.
Now there is a hierarchy of administration and people outside of classrooms (some of whom have never been a teacher) making decisions that impact every minute of a teacher's (and her student's) day, what is taught, when and how. I am sitting here listening to an NPR segment on mandated state testing and NCLB. Who are the people behind NCLB and all this mandated testing? Others.
Do engineers, doctors, or lawyers work under the same massive mandates? The difficulty in demanding the respect that we deserve is that teachers work for others, and "others" control what we do. Yes, we can make a huge difference in our individual classrooms and even in our schools. And I bet the majority of us would say we are highly respected in our schools.
So some of these "others" out there say teachers need to close the achievement gap. Are there "others" out there mandating doctors to close a mortality gap? Or lawyers to close some gap between the legal rights of the poor and the well to do?
I really want teachers to get the respect we deserve but where do we start?
After reading the post by Matt, and TB's response, I am drawn back to our recent conversation about civil disobedience. We discussed why it might be justified, and how it could be made effective, and some folks seemed to be open to the fact that collective action might be needed. The core issue is the systematic disempowerment of teachers.
Matt seems to base his argument on numbers. He suggests that since 2.2 percent of working Americans are teachers, and we have powerful unions, we ought to be able to change the profession ourselves. For me, I think there are historical reasons, relating to culture, economics and gender, that help explain why the profession has been shaped the way it is. It is useful to look at those reasons, and see what we can do to change them, but I am not sure it helps to point a finger of blame at the whole profession. We all wind up in our roles, and it is tough sometimes to break out of them and take a new path.
Along those lines, I would break the question he poses into two parts.
Question One: What are the historical conditions that have shaped (and limited the power of) the teaching profession up to this point?
Question Two: How can we challenge and change this dynamic so that teachers take more power in our classrooms and in the profession?
The answer to the first question is really important. We are often compared to lawyers and doctors, but our professions developed under very different circumstances. As the US became industrialized, our schools shifted from an agrarian model with one or a few mostly male teachers, to a factory model with classrooms staffed by mostly female teachers, governed by a male principal, overseen by male school boards. Power in the schools has historically been invested in a patriarchal structure, where the principal is expected to supervise and set the curriculum, and teachers are expected to follow those directions.
Beyond the school, the professional knowledge and research base of the profession has resided in Schools of Education, which not only prepare teachers but also have an interest in maintaining their own status as the experts on how children should be taught. And beyond the schools of education lie the real forces that shape educational policy, political leaders who see tinkering with education as their opportunity to show they are doing something about the problems of society.
Schools have been seen for a long time as a place where the ills of society are remedied. When waves of immigrants arrived from Europe a century ago, the schools were expected to socialize them into a common "American" culture. Back in 1900, only half the children even attended school, and the average number of years attended was five.
I did a little research online and found a copy of a 1922 teacher's contract for $75 a month:
Miss ---------- agrees:
1. Not to get married. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher marries.
2. Not to have company with men.
3. To be at home between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. unless in attendance at a school function.
4 Not to loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
5. Not to leave town at any time without the permission of the Chairman of the Trustees.
6. Not to smoke cigarettes. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher is found smoking.
7. Not to drink beer, wine or whiskey: This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher is found drinking beer, wine, or whiskey.
9. Not to dress in bright colors.
10. Not to dye her hair.
11. To wear at least two petticoats.
12. Not to wear dresses more than two inches above the ankles.
13. To keep the schoolroom clean: (a) to sweep the classroom floor at least once daily. (b) to scrub the classroom floor at least once weekly with soap and hot water. (c) to clean the blackboard at least once daily. (d) to start the fire at 7:00 a.m., so that the room will be warm at 8:00 a.m. when the children arrive.
14. Not to wear face powder, mascara, or to paint the lips.
(Photo: teachers circa 1930)
So I think we have to be careful to consider the roots of our profession when we start saying "teachers are to blame" for our own disempowerment. As I said, I do not think blame is a good place from which to develop motivation for change, though some of us are familiar with that device from our family relationships! I think we need to understand, with compassion, how these patterns developed, and then we can begin to challenge them.
Which brings us to question two: how can we challenge and change this dynamic so that teachers take more power in our classrooms and in the profession?
This is really a question about how you bring about social change. Once again, it is good to look at history and see how things have changed in the past. Matt is pointing out the large number of teachers in America, which suggests there is a latent power there. But social change takes much more than sheer numbers, and even having teachers organized into unions is not enough. Jim Crow lasted for almost a century in spite of the millions of people it oppressed.
In order for us to accomplish this shift there needs to be a clear sense of direction, widely shared. We need a moral imperative that gives us clarity of purpose. We need to be clear that we are in a fluid situation, where there are different political forces at work, each with their own sets of ideas contending for dominance. Actually, this is a very interesting moment, and we see things even more fluid than usual. No Child Left Behind was the policy vehicle of a number of career policymakers, and as it is reaching the end of its credibility, we see many of these former champions leaping aside to become critics, so as to position themselves to continue to offer sage advice.
So there is a bit of a vacuum, a time when teacher leaders have the opportunity to put forward another model of school improvement, one which recognizes teacher leadership as the most powerful source of change in schools. But we have to go farther than that. We have to answer the questions answered so badly by NCLB and the high-stakes testing regime. To whom are our schools accountable? How is learning measured? How is that measurement shared with the community? How is teaching expertise developed? What is the role of the teacher in making educational decisions? How do we build sustainable communities of powerful educators in ALL of our schools?
This definition of our direction is really just the first step in the social change process. We will then need to take that vision and share it widely, and organize around it broadly, including parents and community leaders. We will need to ally with other people making parallel realizations in their walks of life, because this is all part of a larger social dynamic, and our disempowerment is one piece of a much larger pattern. And we will need to begin taking actions, because if Rosa Parks' arrest had been the end of the story, the Montgomery bus boycott would not have happened, and Jim Crow would still be with us.
Actually, doctors, lawyers and engineers do work under considerable mandates, especially if they practice in areas where they are employed by the public; many of them also work for others, who control their immediate work practice/load, and measure their outcomes. Civil and mechanical engineers' work products (think bridges) are rigorously tested, and new doctors in a corporate practice will be expected to treat a specific number of patients daily. They also come out of professional school with incredible debt loads, which may not permit them to work "for themselves" until they're in their 40s.
It's technical expertise that separates professionals from non-professionals, and teaching, unfortunately, has a weak technical knowledge base. We reinforce this every time we say "teaching is an art" or allow someone with no training into a classroom as the teacher of record. When we permit substitute teachers without education degrees to "cover" classrooms, or reduce teacher training to six-week boot camps, we reinforce the notion that there isn't much to know about teaching. It's instinctive, natural, not very difficult.
I'm glad Anthony raised the question of the historical role of teachers. Historically, doctors were trained in helter-skelter fashion--some in two-year programs, some in six-year programs, with and without clinical experience. Until the Flexner report, early in this century, medical training was hit and miss, and there were lots of healers, barber-surgeons and midwives who had little or no formal training.
The Flexner report changed all that by establishing the ideas that there was one best way to practice medicine, rigorous scientific research would continue to update "best practice" protocols, and training should be standardized. And, with the standardization of training and required knowledge, came a true medical profession, what we speak of today when we wish teachers were treated like doctors.
There were downsides. Small, country medical schools were closed, including many medical schools for minorities, serving minority populations with a little less training but a lot of personal care. Medical training became prohibitively expensive, and public expectations about "perfect" medical care led to malpractice insurance (something lawyers in private practice are also required to have--but not teachers). True, doctors and lawyers have more decision-making power, but they also have full accountability.
We need to be careful what we wish for...but with that said, I personally believe professionalism is something that teachers should pursue, aggressively. We should begin to embrace concepts like precise diagnosis and prescription for learning needs, and continuously investigate/research effective practice, and control standards and benchmarks for assessing good teaching.
We will not become professional without stepping on some of our colleagues, or without a great deal of internal discomfort. The reason I believe we can do this, however, is because teaching in some other countries looks MUCH more like a profession than it does here, largely because they've had schools, universities and a highly educated citizenry far longer than the U.S.. We're still dealing with the aftermath of teachers who had to start the fire, scrub the floor, and obey the rules about riding in cars with boys.
I like both Nancy and Anthony's thoughtful responses to this — especially the historical context of our situation, which matters greatly. BTW, Anthony's reference to Rosa Parks reminds me that most people do not know that hers was not a spontaneous act of individual heroism. She was an officer in the NAACP, trained and prepared for direct action, with several organizations ready to back her up.
Theoretically, teachers could and should take a more aggressive stance to changing our public image and our leverage over our own profession. But as TB pointed out, this is a huge task and just figuring out where to start is daunting. One place, I would think, should be the licensure and certification boards in our respective states (or the push for a national one). If I had my way, every school board would be required to have one-third to one-half of its members be either practicing educators or persons with significant experience in public education.
However, just getting teachers on these bodies would not necessarily improve our overall situation (just as getting more blacks elected to various offices did not necessarily improve the quality of life for African Americans). Can we, as a profession, move to a consensus view on best practices, standard operating procedures, certification criteria, teacher education curricula and approaches? While we are also fighting off those non-educators who have carved comfortable careers and small fortunes off running (or ruining) our schools and careers?
When the state Teachers of the Year tried to make a political statement last year about NCLB, it was greeted in the administration with almost paternalistic chagrin. But, if recognized groups of accomplished teachers continue to speak out loud enough and long enough, could we generate a critical mass? This is worth thinking and talking through more. Sounds like a great idea for some working conferences (maybe online ones) of teachers from different areas and organizations.