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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Class Struggle: Empowering the Teaching Profession

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

There is a lot of debate among educators about the lack of status for the teaching profession. A blogger named Matt Johnston has pointed out that if we teachers want to be treated as professionals, we can do something about it. We have the numbers and organization. If we have the will, we ought to stop griping and step up to make the changes we desire.

I think it is a bit more complex than that. I believe there are historical factors, relating to culture, economics, and gender that have shaped the profession to be the way it is. It is useful to look at those factors 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.

I would break the issue Johnston raises into two questions:

  • What are the historical conditions that have shaped (and limited the power of) the teaching profession up to this point?
  • How can we challenge and change this dynamic so that teachers gain more power in their classrooms and in the profession?

Patriarchy in the Profession

The answer to the first question is really important. We are often compared with lawyers and doctors, but those professions developed under very different circumstances than ours. As the United States became industrialized, its schools shifted from an agrarian model -- with one or a few teachers, usually males -- to a factory model, with classrooms staffed predominantly by female teachers, governed by a male principal, and overseen by male school boards.

Power in the schools has historically been structured in a patriarchal hierarchy, in which the principal supervises and sets the curriculum, and teachers are expected to follow his 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 educators should teach children. And beyond the schools of education are the real forces that shape educational policy: political leaders who see tinkering with education as their opportunity to show they are doing something about society's problems.

I did a little research and came across a contract for a teacher from 1922, which, among other things, forbade her to marry or loiter around ice cream parlors. So I think we need to consider the roots of our profession carefully when we start saying teachers are to blame for their disempowerment. I do not think blame is a very 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.

Power to the Profession

Which brings us to question two: How do we change the situation so that we can get more power? 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 Johnston points out the large number of teachers, which suggests there is a latent power there.

But social change takes much more than sheer numbers, and even having teachers organized in 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 must be a widely shared, clear sense of direction. We need a moral imperative that gives us clarity of purpose. We need to understand that we are in a fluid situation, in which there are different political forces at work, each with its own set of ideas contending for dominance.

Actually, this is a very interesting moment, and things are even more fluid than usual. No Child Left Behind was the policy vehicle of a number of career policy makers, and as it is reaching the end of its credibility, we see many of these former champions leaping aside to become critics so they can 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 that recognizes teacher leadership as the most powerful source of change in schools. But we have to go farther than that. We have to address the questions answered NCLB and the high-stakes testing regime have answered so badly: To whom are our schools accountable? How do we measure learning? How do we share that measurement with the community? How do we develop teaching expertise? 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?

Defining 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. We need to include parents and community leaders. We will need to ally with other people who are 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 some collective actions, because if the Montgomery bus boycott had not occurred, we never would have heard of Rosa Parks, and her arrest would have simply signified a lonely act of defiance instead of the beginning of a social movement. Seattle teacher Carl Chew's recent act of defiance, in which he refused to administer a statewide standardized test to his sixth-grade students, will be a mere footnote if others do not join him.

What do you think about this issue? Please share your thoughts, and read part two of this entry.

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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Comments (102)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Joy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree that organization is critical if one desires respect. I know of some very talented, creative teachers that are constantly upset over the comments that parents make about their teaching. However, the classroom is in a constant state of disarray. Basically, teachers need to be organized, if they wish to be taken seriously, and treated with respect.

Joy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a novice teacher, I underestimated the importance of dressing professionally. I excused my lack of professionalism with the excuse that I teach 1st grade and everything gets ruined from glue, chocolate milk, etc. However, based on feedback from colleagues and parents, I realized that the better I dressed, the more respect I would receive from students, parents, and administration. For a little bit of effort, it reaps a big reward.

Dane Carter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers are faced with many difficult challenges to be seen as professionals. Not every single teacher can be the most experienced in their field, however, every single teacher can dress professionally. I'm not going to compare myself to a doctor or lawyer because they have more education and make more money. I will argue that my profession as a whole is the single most important profession because we are responsible for not only teaching lessons but about shaping morals, creating future participating citizens, and educating the next doctors and lawyers. I am one of the few teachers in my school that wears a shirt and tie everyday Monday through Thursday. On Fridays we can donate a dollar to a local charity and in return can dress down. On Fridays I wear khaki pants and a polo.
Image is an important technique that everyone can employ. It's only a small part but it has an impact. When I walk down the street and see a police officer or a person in a suit, I think differently about them because I have premade judgements about them. Students are the same way. I feel that there should be a notable difference between teachers and students in the way that they dress. I'm not a student, I'm a professional. If we as teachers want to be perceived as professional then one small step in that direction should be dress. In a profession where sometimes we have little control over what happens, it's good to know that I can control one aspect of it fairly simply every morning. Some teachers need to quit making excuses and take one small step in the right direction.

Catherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Do you think that part of the problem with teachers being treated as professionals is that we work with children? When you think about other professions, who has more respect, the heart surgeon or the pediatrician? The university instructor or the kindergarten teacher? I do agree that dressing professionally changes peoples' attitudes toward teachers. I have seen it first hand where I teach. We are now required to dress professionally, no jeans or sneakers. Parents interact with us differently than they used to.

Marianne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that there are misconceptions about teachers, especially ones that work with young children. Uninformed individuals may look at pre-school or kindergarten teachers as "babysitters" when nothing could be further from the truth. Part of my job involves visiting classrooms at different grade levels, and I am constantly amazed by the skill of early childhood teachers. If more people actually had a chance to observe one of these teachers at work, I know their level of respect would improve. It makes a university professor's job look easy!
I do think dressing professionally helps, but we need to take it further than that. If we can remember to keep a professional attitude in mind as we communicate and interact with our students and parents, we may help improve the way our profession is viewed by others outside the field. We need to stay well informed about our practice and get the message out that we know our stuff.

Jody Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I so agree with you Jonathan that bad teachers give the rest of us a bad reputation. The sad part is that rarely I have seen principals "crack down" on them, as you say. Once a teacher gets tenure, it is very hard to get those who are on auto-pilot to change. I've known teachers to use the same worksheets or handouts for 20 years, and I am not exaggerating! How do we nudge our colleagues onto the "good teacher" side? That is a conumdrum if ever there was one!

stacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with you. Many parents today look for someone else to blame when something goes wrong in their child's life. Children need to be taught that they are responsible for their own actions and will be held accountable for them.
Also, I feel that the news media has a lot to do with how teachers are viewed. Most of the stories covered by the major networks involve incidents where a teacher has become involved with a student. They very rarely, if ever, report on something positive that a teacher has done.

Jocelyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, I do agree that bad teachers are rotten fruit in our profession. However, saying good vs. bad can be trivialized to caring vs. not caring completely undermines all of the hard work done by our "good" teachers. Good teachers, effective teachers, do much more than just 'care.' Yes, this is an important ingredient, arguably the most important, for a good teacher, but is just a trace of all that encompasses a good teacher. Good teachers study, reflect, study some more, practice, reflect some more, dialogue, practice some more and on and on. Good teaching is a process that barely begins with caring. And so to say that bad teachers simply don't care is hugely off the mark. There are bad teachers out there who have all of the best intentions, but they simply can't or don't get it right. They 'care' and wish the best for all of their students, but they just don't have what it takes. Maybe they don't have a strong content knowledge base, maybe their classroom management is non-existent, or maybe they simply don't have the personality for being an effective teacher. Teaching is such a complex profession that to say the difference between good vs. bad teachers is the difference between caring and not caring is an enormous injustice to all of our hard work.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the teaching profession gets a bad reputation because the general public does not know what we really do; they basically only see what the media portrays. I can understand why people hold this perspective because at one point, before I entered the teaching profession, I too thought that teachers just use manuals to teach and they have summers off so it is a great job. Fortunately for my students this is not the reason I entered teaching, it is because kids are my passion. I learned early on that if I am not willing to go above and beyond I will be an ineffective teacher. It is so frustrating to work with people who are on auto-pilot when most of us pour our hearts into creating exciting and innovating lessons for our students. These teachers make the rest of us look bad. The students are the ones who are hurt not only educationally speaking, but emotionally as well. Imagine that you are a sophomore in high school, have struggled along the way, and then you have a teacher who does not care about your success. For those students it could be a breaking point in their high school career and a determining factor in whether they want to continue or not.
Taking a stand should begin at a school level. The principal at my school is constantly walking around to see if the students are engaged. If more principals spot checked their teachers they could get a feel for those who are ineffective and work with them to improve their teaching habits or start writing them up. Honestly, the only people who complain about this are those who know they are not doing what they should be. The area where I feel we are lacking is in professional dress. My initial teaching experience was in a district where you could have no facial piercings, visible tattoos, or more than 2 earrings in each ear (none for men). You also had to wear professional attire. The district I am in now only has regulations on the dress code, no jeans, t-shirts or sweat clothes. There is nothing in there about piercings or tattoos, which I think says something about your level of professionalism. If teachers do not take the time to maintain a level of professionalism, then why would anyone treat them professionally?

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