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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

Christy Grubbs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A far too sensitive America --
As teachers our jobs are becoming more and more complicated due the overwhelming number of people that we have to cater to. We now have to consider not only what is best for the student, but what is best for the school, parent, neighbor, and community. As I would love to make everyone happy- because it would make things easier- it is an almost impossible task. So then the questions is, "Whose needs are priority one?" Then you are getting yourself into a whole other situation. I agree with Avian in that we need to worry about doing what is right for our students, whether it is hard or complicated or controversial. As an Art teacher I constantly have to decide if an image is "appropriate" for my students. I understand that full nude sculptures are obviously out of the question for 5 year olds, however if I take the safe route then I am only prolonging the inevitable. But if I talk with my students and am honest with them from the start then I could avoid issues later. The longer our students are in the dark about issues involving their education, the harder we are making it for them later when they finally see the light. I hope that schools understand this and are more willing to back their educators when issues arise. This is not a request for brutal honesty but just a plea for avoiding the clean, care free road every time.

Jonathan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Folks, if we think that dressing up is going to get us more credibility in society then you are sadly mistaken. You all have taken a topic in which the author is writing about an incredibly powerful topic - how educators can gain more respect and gain power within the world that we live in? And all we can come up with is dressing up??? This is small-minded and short sighted. The article is talking about big issues that have shaped who we have became over the years. Some of the most influential people that I have been around have been men in slacks, an open colored shirt, and tennis shoes. Image does make a huge impact - yes! If we were going to Capital Hill to make a presentation to Senators, I would not wear what I do to work everyday. But that is not my job! My job is to teach teenagers. I need to be comfortable. They need to be comfortable with me.

Let's talk about some real issues other than Dress Code, please. He had some incredibly challenging questions that have flown right over many of our heads.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe it is not the clothing that makes a person a professional. It is how they handle themselves in their given field. I have had many teachers throughout my schooling that have dressed in a variety of ways. No matter if they were wearing jeans and a sweat shirt or a button down shirt and a tie, it was their style of teaching and the way they interacted with me and the other student in the classroom that demanded my respect for thier profession.

I am now a special education teacher myself and typically wear jeans and a nice blouse. I occasionally wear dress slacks or a skirt when I know that I am meeting with parents or have a light day in the classroom. However, I always make sure my dress is appropriate for my age and to be infront of my students (I teach teenage boys and we all know what they are thinking.). I go by the rule "If I would not allow my daughter who is only 5 now to wear it when she is a teen or older, I should not wear it either."

I have on occassion commented to teachers in other departments about my way of dressing compared to thiers. Thier comments have been that they would probably dress the same as I if they worked with my population of students. Again, I do not think that it is the clothes that make you a professional. It is the way you carry yourself, attend to your students, and your interactions with students, parents, collegues and administration. It is who you are as a teacher, role model, mentor, and collegue that makes you a professional.

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In order for teachers to be treated as professionals, we must stand up together for what we believe is best for our students and our profession. As teachers, we must always remember that we are doing this for the students. I also agree that it is important for us to work together with parents and the community. Our schools are a crucial part of our society, and people need to realize that teachers deserve to be treated as the professionals that they are.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am proud to be called "Teacher." I help children discover knowledge. I do not regurgitate facts to anyone who listens. I empower students with understanding.

Being a teacher requires much more than society realizes. Our day does not end with the bell. Grading papers, Parent-Teacher conferences, chaperoning dances, afterschool tutoring, eating lunch with students, PTA meetings, and providing students with every opportunity to succeed is definately working off the time-clock.

I admire all teachers. We work in a profession where our clients mostly dislike us. We are viewed as the enemy, by some of our students, parents, and the community.

Hodge's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been scanning through these postings about dress codes and how it relates to professionalism. We should definitly separate ourselves from our students in the way we dress but also in the way we behave as educators. We need to remember that we are the leaders in our schools and that students will always look to us and model our behavior. If we continue to represent ourselves as professional educators by way of our behavior then maybe we will gain respect. Also, we as teachers should not speak bad of our jobs. I have heard other teachers in the past talking about teaching and how they just wanted to teach to have summers off for vacation or for other reasons. This is discouraging to me and sends the wrong message to other people who love the job and want to be viewed as professional educators.

Ric Ponder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my opinion, there are two ways to attempt to regain the "lost" respect that we as teachers once had. First, that has to be much creative, collaborative thinking that is focused towards merging the gap between parents and the school system. Although parents are much younger than days of old and most of their values differ greatly, we must understand that we are only in place to "improve" a product (our kids). This "product" holds great value, however, it isn't aware of its need to become great. Under normal circumstances, this is where parents emphasize, direct, and encourage the power of education. However, we can not force this issue on our own when the respect is not to be found in the homes or communities of our kids. This is the very reason why strong parents are a great commodity for our success as teachers. Secondly, our awareness of the community that we serve can also help in regaining respect. Revealing our awareness to our kids show that we care and we have an obvious interest in their lives. It is during this time when respect is gained because our awareness opens other doors of communication that can not be open through simple instruction.

Leah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am fairly new to the education field, but already I have noticed the general negative feelings the public has towards teachers. I have to admit that before becoming an educator I did not realize how difficult it would be! Many people that I have spoken with, believe teaching to be easy and always point out that i have the summer's off. I don't know about other educators, but I don't have summer's off. There is too much planning that needs to be done. Plus I put in more than enough hours during the school year to make up for those summer days.
The problem is that there are too few people who recognize how valuable educators are and how hard they truly work! Someday I hope to aid in changing the persona of educators. I want everyone to understand the challenges we face. I want everyone to see our worth!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that it is important for teachers to look professional, but there is no set definition to "professional". I also think it is a great observation that the teaching profession often demands us to behave in a manor that is not condusive to a suit and tie. I think teachers as a whole, do a pretty good job of looking the part of a professional when considering the daily routine of our profession. I don't think that is a big reason why we are not respected as other professionals are. I think it all goes back to the attitude that people have about their children. Today, parents seem to think their kids have no flaws but teachers and public education does. "Why did you give my kid detention?" What happened to, "I grounded my kid for 2 weeks because he got detention."? That is the root of the problem in my opinion.

cindy leon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am proud that i am studying to become a teacher. I can't see my self doing anything else. People don't realize that we are role models for these students. Students really pay attention to what their teachers are doing.
I agree that student motivation is important and that teachers need to stick together.

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