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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

Kathy S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do feel as though we as teachers have a responsibility to bring respect to our profession. Unfortunately, it doesn't just come with the territory. My own father is outraged by how much money a kindergarden teacher makes. He has no idea what goes on in that classroom on a given day. He thinks that they are way over paid for teaching painting and reading stories. We battle this issue all the time. I think that there is something to be said for how a teacher presents him or herself. That has as much to do with attitude, class and grace as it does with dress. I know many teachers who dress to be involved with their students. A business casual appearance fits nicely when you are actively involved with your students. We should focus on the verbal and non verbal messages that we are sending. This does include both appearance and the way in in which we carry ourselves. However, I doubt my father would alter his opinion because he met a kindergarden teacher in a dress or a siut.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your comment on how a teacher should dress professionally yet not uncomfortably for their subject area. A PE teacher would not wear a suit or dress. An art teacher would certainly not want to wear the best clothes. Even as a high school math teacher, I would be uncomfortable in a suit and heels all day, considering the fact the we do not have air conditioning and I am on my feet all day long. Sweats and tennis shoes are not appropriate wear for me, but I feel that khakis, nice dress pants, comfortable shoes, and shirts look professional if worn correctly (not too tight, too short, or too long).
Another thought is that I do not want to look unapproachable to my students. I want the students to feel comfortable and not intimidated by my dress.

Charri B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As educators, we wear many hats and take on several roles. We can be the mother, father, disciplinarian, judge, and friend as well as a number of other roles. As far as parenting is concenred, the responsibilities that we have should not be in our court, however, many times we have no choice but to take them on. For instance, working in a low socioeconomic school, I have had to embrace the parenting role during the two years that I have taught. Initially, I found it a bit strange because I grew up in a middle, working class family and my parents knew their role and did not expect my teachers to intervene. However, when I stepped into the classroom for the first time last year and realized the challenges, it shocked me at first. I have had parents tell their children, "You better do it or I'm going to tell Ms.B tomorrow." My thoughts are, "What in the world can I do? You're the parent. You have the ultimate power." Or at least that should be the case... When I am prompted to call up parents if their 6-year-old child is misbehaving and the only response I get is, "Well he does this at home and I don't know what else to do," it truly worries me. That kind of attitude makes me avoid calling parents honestly. Perhaps I am not looking at the full picture. Maybe there is a way that I can get my parents to take back their responsibility. I am currently not seeing it though...

Charri B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When one thinks of the term "professional" the career that many people would immediately think of are health care practioners, or lawyers but teachers do not fit the mold. The ironic thing is that educators are responible for our leaders, doctors, and lawyers advancing to the point of success. One aspect of being classified as a professional often times refers to your dress code. "Professionals usually wear suits, button down shirts, slacks, neck ties, and dress shoes. They should be cleanly shaven and present themselves in a certain manner." Based on what I just stated if this were 100% true, I can admit that I would not have a job as a teacher. The word professional in the context of education does not mean the same as when referring to a lawyer. The meaning can also change when moving between primary and collegiate levels of school. Being a first grade teacher, it would be difficult wearing a suit and high heels while trying to run after 6 year olds. My definition of being professional is making sure that my clothing is at an appropriate length and is not revealing at all. We just need to realize that we are being watched at all times by society, our colleagues, the families of our students, and even the kids that we may sometimes think are not paying attention. Even if they are not noticing, we should still conduct ourselves in an appropriate way as if they are.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just want to say I agree with you, but could there be any easy solution to this? Why not just bring a change of clothing for those projects and satisfy your "Dress Code" for both the classroom projects and the image you are trying to portray as a "Professional." I have a background in business, but in the middle of a career change to teaching, and I completely understand the need to be seen as a professional. But, in all I have read and heard about being "professional," I have not read or heard of a simple solution. I am always looking for a solution instead of complaining about a policy or mandate. To make teachers "look the part" and "act the part" of being a professional we should also use our heads and of course imporvise when needed. If you are preparing a lesson that involves the need for a pair of jeans and t-shirt, bring a change of those clothes with you to school. To me this is simple, but I am so new to this, help me understand what the verbal rise is all about.

Avian Holbert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a society our values at every turn have been degraded. Teachers are not respected as they once were, nor are parents, members of the clergy, or the elderly to name a few. Once we were a non-mobile society, everyone new everyone else and the values of a community were consistent. If a child misbehaved at school the teacher punished the student and then called the parent and they punished the student again at home. Remember when your neighbors called your home and told your parents they saw you misbehaving and your parents punished you? Or remember when children were required to call people Mr. and Ms. and say Sir and Mam. Today our society is mobile; people don't know their neighbors and are afraid to interfere. Therefore each of us is left feeling like we are alone in our quest to educate today's youth. We are more concerned about offending another person or being sued that as a group, we often look the other way, rather than do what we know to be right. Or, we ignore the situation because doing something about it would take too much effort. As Anthony Cody, the author of this blog pointed out, teachers never really were treated as professionals. The real question is how can we as educators regain the lost respect we once had in society? Personally I feel that collectively we'll need to begin by consistently doing the right thing, even when it's hard, incontinent or unpopular.

Stephanie Washington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think some ways teachers can help parents play more of a role in their education is by making them accountable. Ask parents to sign off all homework that is turned in. Also make sure you have an open door policy in your classroom, offering multiple invitations for parents to come in and be involved. Food and free things are also an attraction. So at the next event you have, let parents know that refreshments and/or a small gift may be available.

Michael Joseph Matteucig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First of all, I would like to stress the term "educator" rather than teacher vis-a-vis education--not teaching.

Educators are individuals who are willing to allow each and every human being to thrive intellectually, cognitively, socio-emotionally, and physically based on the unique strengths and weaknesses of each individual. Furthermore, educators must realize that all human beings come with knowledge and are not intellectually deficient vassals--unlike our traditional definition of teacher and on-going practice of teaching which assume that learners are in fact void or lacking intellectually.

In order to elevate the education profession, educators must be more concerned about learner success and not tenure or seniority--thus, time-clock. Educators must be willing to take the time to tailor curriculum to the learner's abilities and not force the learner to conform to left-brain traditional teaching practices. Educators must learn to be--more than simple bureaucrats--enlightened social servants with well-rounded knowledge of history, science, math, foreign languages, technology in order to promote a better society.

With respect to enlightened social servants, educators must advocate for humanistic educational practices tied to legal compliance on behalf of those individuals whose minds are being formed by said educators.

Only with a change of consciousness in the educational profession will our profession be respected, revered, and admired.

Audrey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I honestly can not believe how fixated we are on teacher dress codes. It is plainly obvious that teachers should dress appropriately, but is that the only standard for having others treat us professionally? I'm concerned that there are bigger fish to fry than whether I wear a suit to school each day. Just yesterday, I had a doctor's appointment - since we continuously seem to reference doctors - who presented himself in scrubs. Now, I don't know about you, but I've worn hospital pants to bed, so aren't scrubs the equivalent to pajamas? Is wardrobe the true indicator of professionalism? Let's not ignore his years of medical school and residency all because he arrived in an outfit that resembles bed linens. How else can we earn the respect of the community?

Tina Sieverding, Bellevue, IA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jaclyn, I have to say I completely agree with you when you discussed your concerns on this topic. My stand on teacher dress code is similar to yours. I wear nice casual, sometimes dressy clothing depending on the day and activities planned. I don't think a person should be judged on their clothes, but rather on their performance. People are entitled to their own opinions, but the only opinions I concern myself with are the opinions of my students. Some people are quick to judge other, even though they have no idea what's all involved in the teaching profession. I also completley agree on how our creative canvas is getting smaller, because of all the state and district mandates. We are expected to do so much more, in the same amount of time. We do what they ask and still try to put our creative twist on things when the curriculum and time allows. We have challenges in our profession that the critics don't experience or even know about. It's frustrating to hear what some other people think of our profession. I am proud to be a teacher, because I know what I do everyday to make a difference in the lives of the children I teach.

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