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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

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you because student motivation is the most important item. When I am talking with my students I try to model how the behavior looks and how they should look and what they should do. If we are having a writing piece, I will sit at my desk and write quietly. If we are reading silently I will read silently so they can see how to read silently. People do not realize that we are role models for these students and they model our behvior and attitudes. If we the professionals do not show them this type of behavior then in some cases who will.

Jaclyn Lackner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I notice in many of the comments that teacher dress code seems to be very important. I completely agree that administrators need to dress professionally. I would like them to wear dresses/skirt or tie and jacket. I think teachers should also look good, but not necessarily "dressed up". Their clothes should be ironed, neat, tucked in if appropriate, and mature. However, I also think a teacher needs to feel comfotable. I sometimes wear jeans with a nice shirt. Or I wear sneakers on days I know I plan to play kickball with my students. Someone made a reference, would you want you doctor or lawyer to show up dressed like that. How many doctors and lawyers sit on the floor with their clients? How many doctors and lawyers build messy projects, run around a playyard, and participate in activites that involve physical work. I do not stand in the front of my classroom lecturing my students. I get down and dirty with them and I do not believe I need to be wearing a skirt to get my point across.
I do agree that teachers need to make decisions with their unions more often. I don't understand how teachers who never vote can complain. If you do not let your voice heard they you are partly at fault.
I also think that teachers are losing some of their own control. We have administrators, superintendents and thee board of education telling us what to do at all times. Most of our curriculums are scripted and leave little room for creativity. I heard someone say education is getting worse each year. Yet, these authoritive figures are giving teachers less room to breath each year.
A solution is hard to come across because there are more than just one problem. As a teacher we need to let our wants be known and work together to help each other out.

Amy B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that as educators we have been given the responsibility of parenting so many of our students that it complicates our role as the teacher. What are some ways in which we can give up some of that responsibilty and get parents to take it back?

Liliana Ayoubi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that in order to be treated like a professional, one should act like a professional. The first thing one can notice about lawyers & managers is the way they dress to work. Therefore, teachers should also dress professionally every day they go to work to give the impression that they are serious and going to do their job.
We should show the students,their parents and the public that teaching is a profession like any other profession.
Liliana Ayoubi.

Jen S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your posting. Each pay teachers pay their union dues but then take no action in the discision-making process. Yet, those same teachers that just 'pay the money' are the same teacher to complain about their classroom and profession. We can make a difference, we can make changes, we just need to act on what we can do instead of doing nothing.

Stephanie Washington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree that if we teachers want to be treated like professionals, than we need to act the part. Why is it that people give doctors, lawyers, psychiatrist, ect full regard as professionals, but when it comes to teachers, especially teacher in primary grades, often we are looked on as less. I am a kindergarten teacher and some of the parents have NO idea how much their students have learned this year because they think we just color and play outside. I dress as a professional, I conduct myself as a professional, and I am very good at what I do, as a professional should be. But because the parents aren't in the classroom seeing all that I do, they maintain their assumptions about my job. Many would be very surprised at how academically driven the kindergarten curriculum is. So we not only do we have to dress and act the part of professional, we have to get the parents involved so that they can see what it is we really do, as teachers, to help change to perception one parent, one guardian, one person at a time.

Karyn Sullivan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A teachers' dress code seems to be a big topic among people and I totally agree that part of being "professional" is your appearance, but let's be practical. Yes lawyers, doctors, managers etc. wear a suit and tie or dress, but it fits their profession. Would it be practical to see a surgeon in an operating room in a business suit? Teachers work with children and do art projects, science experiments and other messy things so I believe we as teachers should dress appropriately. I'm not saying jeans and a sweatshirt but certainly not a business suit. I think as teachers we are on the chopping block for many things and often criticized. It's important to be involved in the children's learning and at times that means getting down on the floor with them. I think a parent would be okay with a teacher dressing a little bit more casual if it meant the teacher was more involved and not so concerned with how they look.

Karyn Sullivan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A teachers' dress code seems to be a big topic among people and I totally agree that part of being "professional" is your appearance, but let's be practical. Yes lawyers, doctors, managers etc. wear a suit and tie or dress, but it fits their profession. Would it be practical to see a surgeon in an operating room in a business suit? Teachers work with children and do art projects, science experiments and other messy things so I believe we as teachers should dress appropriately. I'm not saying jeans and a sweatshirt but certainly not a business suit. I think as teachers we are on the chopping block for many things and often criticized. It's important to be involved in the children's learning and at times that means getting down on the floor with them. I think a parent would be okay with a teacher dressing a little bit more casual if it meant the teacher was more involved and not so concerned with how they look.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that it is so important to model everything you expect your students to do. We need to remember as teachers we are teaching many skill students may not have been introduced to before. Our job is not only to teach academics, but we also teach many other skills and life lessons. I think it is great that you read or write silently with your students. If we expect them to do it, then we should also be willing to participate and demonstrate how to appropriately behave. If we model what we expect instead of just explaining, then we will see more desired behaviors from student.

Carrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that so many of us act as both parent and teacher. Your final question of how do we get to parents to take their job back is a tough one. I think there are some parents that never will do their job. For the others it may be a matter of time and intervention. Actively seeking their assistance with their children. Communicating effectively with them; showing they how valuable their children are; empowering them. I think a lot of parents "give" their students to us because they think we can do a better job. They underestimate the importance of their role in their child's life. Getting them to see that and getting them to see that they do have a powerful role and that their children do want them in their lives, may start to make a difference.

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