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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

Comments (102)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brian Adderley (Miami fl)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My opinion is that we as teachers could gain our respect, power , and socail ranking back by simpily gaining the respect of the parents again.The only way to gain the respect of the parents,is by showing them that we do care for our student and there future.We also need to get more organized with the parents and show them that teachers are going to need some help to get the results that parents want. We should dress more Professional,but we also need to be more professional and do our jobs the best way we know how.

Jonathan Simmons's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The reason teachers don't get respect is due to those who take this job to simply take the easy way out. I'm sure all of us have had teachers that have impacted our lives greatly yet there are still those that sleepwalk through there lessons and through the entire school year. The main difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is that a good teacher cares about their students and the future that they will one day lead while bad teachers could careless about their students and the impact they will have on the future, this type of teacher regurgitates facts while a good teacher helps students discover knowledge. Principles need to crack down on these teachers and get them out of the classroom A.S.A.P because there giving good teachers who actually take their time to plan well developed lessons a bad rep. The worst part about these types of teachers is that the students suffer the most from it, so we really have to devise a plan to filter these teachers out for the betterment of students and our future.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I personally had a hard time reading your comments and taking it seriously because of all the mechanical errors. "Those who sleepwalk through THERE lessons" "bad teachers could CARELESS about..." "PRINCIPLES need to crack down...because THERE giving good teachers..."

You probably wrote this post quickly and you may not be an English teacher, nor am I, but if that is the caliber of writing you do with/for your students, I, for one, would have a hard time taking your instruction seriously. I think all teachers need to have a good mastery of the English language in order to be and sound professional.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the greatest problems with this is that too many principals see the 'bad' teachers as 'good' teachers because the bad ones know how to bluff their way through life...

Jim kilkenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fact: Something that you have to think about because it comes with a fistful of data to back it up.
There are 3 factors of a good teacher (factor Analysis) c1970 in Teacher effectiveness training.
Factor 1. Reasonably intelligent.
Factor 2. Reasonably creative.
Factor 3. Loves kids.

Good teacher = all factors.
All other teachers aren't in it for teaching.

geralyn, chicago's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher I agree with your comment. I too am also proud to be a teacher. It takes hard work and dedication to be the kind of teacher who is knowledgable, concerned about the students, and a human being first and foremost.

Laura Novoa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just the other day one of my friends who is studying occupational therapy, mentioned that being a teacher is a low class job. I got so upset at him, but in reality most people think the same way about teachers. I can't beleive that teachers are thought about like that. We the teachers, teach children not only the curriculum but also manners. Teachers also inspire children to like certain subjects. There must be something that we teachers could do.

Laura Novoa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are absolutetly right. For me there is nothing worse than reading a serious article and finding all those grammar mistakes (in reader comments), it just makes me not be interested in the opinions anymore. I also feel that the opinion is not credible.

Tonya Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can not do a whole lot to change the way America views teachers and whether or not they think that teaching is a profession. However, I can determine how my coworkers, administrators, and parents view me and whether or not I am a professional.I think in order to make the world change their views about teaching and the degree of professionalism we first have to start small, in our own school.
In regards to the comment about dressing the part of professionalism, I agree that in order to be treated as a professional you must act and look the part. Even if you are teaching Kindergarten it is not hard to find nice clothes that "make you look professional" so that when they do get ruined with markers and ink pens you don't feel like it is the end of the world. I feel much better about myself when I dress nice and not casual like I am going to a BBQ.

Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So why didn't you mention any of them. You did a good job on being negative about dress, but you have nothing else to offer?!

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