The Status of Teaching and The Raising of Teacher Voices

27 Jan

The main project I do my research with, an urban teaching residency program, had an event two days ago to celebrate the progress of the program.  The people that work in this program–the residents, the mentor teachers, the faculty–are amazing, dedicated, talented professionals who are truly committed to providing the high quality education that every child in deserves.  The entire effort seeks to reimagine teacher education through a hybrid partnership between the school district, university, and the local community, features a year-long co-teaching apprenticeship with a quality classroom mentor, and onsite classes provided by faculty.  The actual coursework stresses transformative teaching through inquiry and fosters the idea of both “teacher as researcher” and “teacher as knowledge maker,” with prospective teachers learning to learn about their community and students, assess student learning, and inquire into their teaching through qualitative research and action research methods.  In short, the program itself is one-of-a-kind and the people that take part in it are wholly wonderful and quality individuals.

Toward the end of the evening, the director of the program pointed me to one of the funders and asked me to go talk with him.  I approached with three teachers from the program and we introduced ourselves. After chatting for a moment, the funder inquired, “So, what was your parents’ response when you told them you were going into teaching?  Were they upset?”

I felt as if the cheese and crackers I had pilfered from the appetizer table were going to make an unwelcome appearance.   I myself had been the recipient of many such comments throughout my short teaching career: “A bright young lady like you, what are you doing as a teacher?”  The smiles on the new teachers’ faces froze as they digested that their chosen path, the work they were pouring their heart into, was being casually assaulted by this individual.  Amid the pithy replies–mustn’t offend those with deep pockets, you know–I detected a brittleness, and I wondered what these young teachers were thinking and what their theories might be as to why teaching is looked down upon by our society.

Has this always been the case?  Historical quotes abound extolling the nobility, the art, the heroism of teaching.  The Roman statesman Cicero declared, “What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation.”   George Bernard Shaw said, “The sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching.”  And John Steinbeck commented, “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”  And I remember during one of the most painful moments of my beginning teaching career, as I sat quietly weeping in my principals office after one of my seventh graders stole my wallet, contemplating my future in the profession, and my principal telling me firmly, “Katie, the work you do is heroic.  Others may not understand, but know that teachers are heroes.”

But in the United States, the answer is yes, this has always been the case, especially since the founding of the Normal School in the 1800s. In my doctoral studies regarding teacher education I have come across many possible answers to the reasons teaching is not considered a profession, that teacher education is not considered a discipline, that teachers themselves are considered to be those who had no prospects elsewhere (or saints who gave up a lucrative career elsewhere to lower themselves to teaching).

For one, teaching is a feminized profession; nearly 90% of the modern teaching force is made up of women; and isn’t education glorified babysitting, after all, and therefore women’s work? And why should we pay well, because it’s not a career–they are going to get pregnant and leave anyway, right? (Hopefully you are picking up on the sarcasm here–the feminization of teaching and the connection to the profession’s  low status is a topic worthy  of much more depth than I can properly spend on it today, so I hope you will forgive me.)

Another contributing factor is the sheer number of teachers required–everyone in the United States must have access to a public education, and the amount of bodies needed to staff those classrooms is enormous–we have nearly four million teachers employed today (three times the number of doctors and a little more than twice the number of engineers).  The sheer number of teachers that must be recruited each year, combined with the low pay and status, means that a large number of teacher candidates are drawn from the middle and lower ends of the talent pools–giving fodder to studies like the one recently released from conservative think tanks the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise institute that claim teachers are actually overpaid because the individuals who make up the teaching force are so cognitively deficient (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/10/assessing-the-compensation-of-public-school-teachers).

Yet another important consideration: teaching is a unique career because all of us have gone through what Dan Lortie (Schoolteacher, 1975) calls the “Apprenticeship of Observation”–a term that describes the approximately thirteen thousand hours we spent in classrooms as student, learning about how to teach by watching our teachers–which gives our society the feeling that they have insight into the teaching profession, and most come to the conclusion that “anyone can be a teacher,”  you just need to know the subject, right?  Unfortunately, this feeds into the perpetuation of the low status of teachers in many ways, such as the proliferation of alternate route teacher credentialing programs, many of which drop career-changers into the classroom with little or no pedagogical education and little or no clinical experience.  This also drives the expectation by teacher candidates in teacher education programs of easy coursework and practical applications with very little theory involved–and since higher education institutes are also businesses, they must cater to the large proportion of teacher ed students that demand less rigorous, more technical coursework, which both drives down the quality of teacher ed programs and discourages higher ability candidates from attending.

All of the above–the fact that teaching is a feminized profession, the idea that teachers are intellectually inferior, and the notion that the nature of teaching is publicly known–combine to produce a situation where teachers have no voice in education.  A classmate of mine made a particularly telling comment in class last night regarding education reform: “Reform doesn’t happen with teachers, it happens TO teachers.”   No other profession has this issue: No medical reforms would ever happen without doctors being a critical part of it–but then, doctors are considered the experts in their field, while teachers are not.  The sheer irony of this is that teachers comprise the largest professional group in the United States: what would happen if four million teachers joined forces to use their voices and act for positive transformation, for reforms that truly support quality teaching and learning?

Teachers, your voices need to be included in policy, in research, in reform efforts.   There are many local and state organizations trying to pull together teachers and educational alliance groups for this purpose–NJTAG is one of them.  We are hosting a teacher conference called “Teachers who Dare: Claiming our Power, Transforming our Schools” on May 5, which will highlight teacher led research and activism, encourage dialogue about important issues in education for teachers, and begin to build a local teacher community.  It is only in solidarity that we can move forward.  Please visit http://www.njtag.org to register (it’s free).  Power to the teachers…

Katie

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4 Responses to “The Status of Teaching and The Raising of Teacher Voices”

  1. sellers@charter.net February 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Actually, your parents were and are very proud of your decision to go into teaching. We are equally proud of your efforts to improve the education environment for teachers and
    students.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] are really two big factors at play here. Number one, teachers aren’t considered true professionals–and policy is leading us further away from… We’re still talking about "training" teachers, rather than drawing on their […]

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