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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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great statement about teachers dressing as professionals!We should all represent the profession and dress accordingly.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers should dress as professionals! That was a great statement made by Matt.

Cynthia in Buffalo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that many of us in the teaching profession act as surrogate parents for many of our students. If we don't, who will, and more important, who suffers? With my students, I try to involve others at school. I contact the social worker or counselor for serious concerns and try to handle the smaller issues myself. I believe I am a professional. I am having trouble seeing how helping those most vulnerable while maintaining my professionalism are two mutually exlusive entities.

Kristyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you. There are so many more issues we have to worry about and we are spending our focus on if a teacher is dressed up enough. How much sense does that make? Now, when I was in college and doing my internship, I was at a school where a number of teachers wore sweat pants and t-shirts. This, I thought was completely inappropriate. However, as a third grade teacher, I am not going to come to school everyday in high-heel shoes and a dress. It is not practical. I am on my feet 75% of the day. I am on the floor with them, I do art projects with them, and so much more. Even more so, I don't have the hundreds of dollars to buy nice suits like you might find a lawyer in. So instead of this huge push for more professional dress, let's focus on things that are more important.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amy,
You pose a very valid question about encouraging parents to take back some responsibility. I wish I had the answer to this, but I do not. I hope that someone will post some valuable strategies. I have had several parents hassle me about their child's grades and or behavior in my class. In many cases some help and encouragement on the homefront may have alleviated the situation or stopped it from occuring at all.

Kristyn Copeland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You say you believe that teachers should dress professionally to show that they are serious about their job. I'm just curious as what you describe as "professionally" though. I think wearing my jeans, school t-shirt and tennis shoes on Fridays shows that I am serious about my job. It shows that I have school spirit and that I am there for my kids rather than to just look the part of a professional. I am able to get on the floor with my kids, do projects and play kickball with them at recess. How much of that am I able to do if I am in a dress and heels. I will say, that I believe a teacher's attire should depend a lot on the grade that they teach. Obvoiusly, if you are a high school teacher, it is a lot more appropriate to wear dresses than if you are an elementary school teacher. Now, I do wear skirts and dresses on occassion, but it is definitely not an everyday thing. It does not work with the way that I do my job.

Deb B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am reading the responses above. I hear a lot about dress code and acting professionally. I agree we can not compare our dress code with attorneys and Doctors. I teach art. I can dress nicely then get permanent stains on clothes. I wear an apron when I can. But I don't dress "like" my students either. There is a difference in all the latest low cut, tight fitting clothing and dressing appropriately for being a "professional" without being in a suit.
A larger issue I have is when walking through he halls I hear so much noise, confusion, disruptions in many classes I wonder how they get work done? How can students work in a room full of distractions and many times rudeness. Teaching students to talk to us with respect and politely is another issue. Students watch so much tv that shows blatant disrespect for all adults (parents included) With laughs piped in; rudeness is reinforced. Basic behavior and dress can be modeled on both levels.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This dress code issue is interesting. At the high school I teach at, teachers may donate one dollar a week (or more if they choose) to a local charity. In return, they may participate in 'dress down' Fridays. I usually donate, but I typically do not dress down every Friday. I will tend to wear school colors, and dress comfortably, but I make sure my attire is appropriate and respectable on these days. I agree that as teachers our days are very active (especially at an elementary level), so comfortable attire is reasonable. I also agree that this attire should be professional in that it is clean, pressed, and neatly worn. We are role models, and presenting ourselves in a respectable manner will help to teach impressional youth that it is important to take care of ourselves and what we have. The main point here is that we should not wear clothes that would possibly distract our students from the learning process.

Mary P's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found reading your comments very interesting since this was a recent topic of discussion amoung our faculty. It was told to us during our contract talks that the faculty dress code was going to be addressed and enforced next year. This brought out a fury of faculty discussions at lunch and many rumors (not about kids but about us) that really began to divide our faculty. I watched as we (the teachers) began looking at each other differently and hearing snickers from each other about we were wearing. It was making me sick to my stomache and for the first time I hated being around my other faculty members for fear of being judges by what I was wearing. Finally these issues and concerns were brought to the administration. It was mentioned to them many of the same things you stated here about how teachers are engaged and involved in so many different projects and activities. They were explained that as teachers we are role models, but we are not doctors, lawyers, and other office type perfessionals. Some don't even teach in air conditioned rooms so that the heat can become unbearable. It was also noted that as we do activities and projects what we wear is more for our lessons and not for looks. It took them a bit to hear us out, but finally they realized that we are professionals who dress as needed for our classes.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There has to be a way where we can make the parent more accountable without hurting the student. It would be easy to cut off the student from all we do that is not teaching. Of course that would most likely be counter-productive. It would create a vacuum that would get filled by who knows what. I think a possible solution would be to do thost things together with parents. They may be items that we are aware of and parents are not. Having that open cooperation could really boost up the students.

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