What does it really mean to be a teacher? Depending on whom you talk to, teaching is a trade, a craft, a profession or even an art. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are even calling it a scam to bleed the taxpayers. I can’t think of any other job that has such an ill-defined identity or tenuous status. Why is this so?
I’m sure a big part of it has to do with the history of teaching as a women’s job in a patriarchal society. Though it meets the dictionary definition of a profession now, it hasn’t always. It doesn’t help that the American educational system has been falling behind (or failing to keep up with) schools in other first world countries, so public opinion varies about just how “professional” teachers really are. The old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach,” sums up the low opinion many have about those of us who dedicate our lives to education.
But what about the teachers themselves? How do we define the work that we do and our role in society? We want to be treated as professionals, but do we act accordingly? At the risk of angering or alienating some of my peers, I want to suggest that we teachers hold a large part of the blame for not demanding the respect that is accorded to most other professions.
Despite what Mr. Limbaugh says, the huge majority of us go into teaching for all the right reasons. We want to serve the common good, we enjoy working with children, and making a lot of money is not our first priority. I have worked with dozens and dozens of teachers, and they are among the most competent and intelligent people you’ll ever meet. So why don’t we command more respect? I think the main reason is that teaching tends to attract a certain personality type. For obvious reasons, teachers tend to be caregivers. Most teachers, especially in the elementary grades, naturally put the needs of others first and are not necessarily comfortable advocating strongly for themselves.
In the realm of teacher compensation, this deferential tendency has been somewhat counterbalanced by the force of the teachers’ unions. In many instances teachers have gone on strike to protect their wages and benefits. But while they have shown solidarity in protecting their salaries, teachers have failed to band together to protect their status as experts in their own field. Over the past few decades, the decision making power of teachers has slowly been eroded by the standards movement and the outside pressures of standardized testing. We have been asked to abandon our educational training and principles, and as far as I can see we have more or less done so with little struggle.
Is this how professionals behave? We will walk out if our pay is cut, but we stand idly by and hand over the right to make the most important decisions in our classroom without a fight. Where is the strike to make the case that teachers know their students better than state and district bureaucrats or textbook publishers? Where is the walkout over mandated testing that sets up our students to fail and does nothing to meaningfully guide instruction? Where have the unions been as teachers have slowly been stripped of their status as leaders in their own schools and classrooms? For a group that is characterized as being so much more idealistic than materialistic, we have failed to stand up for our ideals as strongly as we’ve stood up for our salaries.
Even when teachers had more control of their classrooms, we have never had the same social status (or salaries) as doctors or lawyers. To be fair, those professions require longer post-graduate education, so it might make more sense to compare teachers to nurses, accountants, or even librarians. Teachers are still on the low end of the salary scale compared to some of these professions, but my hunch is that they are comparable in terms of social status. I know that librarians got a big status bump in my view when they banded together and refused to surrender circulation records to the FBI which were demanded under authority of the Patriot Act. When they were asked to go against their professional principles, they refused, eventually suing the federal government on grounds that those provisions of the Patriot Act were unconstitutional.
So maybe we cannot aspire to be held in equal regard as doctors and lawyers, but I’d settle for the social status of those librarians who refused to be pushed around by inept politicians and bureaucrats. It’s time that we teachers get our groove back, and start pushing more forcefully for the things we really believe in. I know that there is a climate of fear and powerlessness in many districts, but the only way to combat that is to band together as we have in the past and start pushing back. The stakes couldn’t be higher, not for our children or for our country. It’s high time we reject the characterization of our profession as the “delivery of instruction” and re-assert our role as the most important and qualified decision makers in education.