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Class Struggle: Empowering the Teaching Profession

| Anthony Cody

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.

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Comments (102)

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P. Harris (not verified)

Get out, get involved to improve the teaching profession

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Get out, get involved--how can we continue to complain if we are not advocating for our profession. We need to act like a profession, dress like a professional. Stop letting the profession be abused. If we don't stand up and promote our profession who will.

I must take issue with the person who was a former business professional turned teacher. I have been an elementary teacher in California. I have taught in three different schools. There are 35 teachers in my school and there is not one slackard in the whole school nor at the other schools where I have worked. They just don't stay around in our school--the pressure is too great. I work between 50 and 55 hours a week, continue to go to school and have raised two daughters who are also passionate teachers. Sure there are people in every profession that don't do their job, but don't paint us all as minimalists.

Patti in Seattle (not verified)

Empowering the Teaching Profession

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True, we have a history to overcome. True, many teachers do not dress or behave professionally. True, also, that we need to participate in professional education organizations. But I also think many of us contribute to the lack of respect by absolving parents and society of the responsibility of decent parenting. Teaching is a challenging, complex profession, but our job is to teach. Because we deal with the most vulnerable element of society, children, we end up doing so much that ISN'T teaching -- counseling, coaching, teaching parenting classes, providing a place for kids to go before school and after school, finding clothes for kids, housing for their families, cleaning out kid's backpacks, making sure they get breakfast, lunch, showers, and medical care. The schools have become the primary caregivers for our nation's children, and all the while the public complains that our children are falling behind those in other countries. Until we stop acting like surrogate parents and start upholding professional standards, we will not be treated as professionals.

Peggy (not verified)

Teaching professional

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I agree we need to take an active role in setting the standards for our profession. We can start this process through our state educational associations and making sure our voices are heard. Another promising way to elevate our professional standards is to conduct action research in our classrooms and share these results.

Anonymous (not verified)

Let your voice be heard

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How many of us pay our union dues and then never take part in the decision-making? If you want more control of your classrooms and profession, become active and voice your opinion at a district, state, or federal level. Take on the responsibility of informing parents and communities of the realities of teaching. Exemplify the teaching profession by dressing appropriately and avoiding inane complaining and gossip. Support your colleagues and administration rather than discussing their faults with others. In essence, be the professional you would like others to perceive.

Sandy (not verified)

male/female balance

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Wow - I had no idea that the male/female balance was 20/80 in the U.S. In our middle school we have 23 teachers, 2 of which are male. I teach in the state of Ohio, and I tend to agree that we lack male teachers due to the pay scale. It is hard to raise a family on a one income teacher's salary. I am very interested in reading "Schoolteacher" by Dan Lortie. Thank you for the valuable information. I cannot wait to share this information with my peers.

LuAnn Mayfield (not verified)

Appearances Count

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I am in agreement with you. When I think of a professional I visualize someone whose appearance immediately sets them apart from others. Pilots, doctors, dentists, lawyers, military personnel, etc. each have a distinct look. It's an outward portrayal of their pride in themselves and their career. People respectively view them as professionals.
Students, as well as parents, respond to teachers in the way they publicly display themselves. However, I believe there is more to the problem than just the way teachers dress. I think teachers as a whole have lost a sense of worth in the school setting as well as in the community. Think about this. How many people of the general public try to tell pilots, doctors, lawyers, etc. how to do their job? It seems to be a downward spiral as more demands are being placed on teachers the less teaching is viewed as a profession. Even so, teachers have a great responsibility to demonstrate their sense of pride. Dressing appropriately is one way to appeal to public's view of teaching as a profession.

Anonymous (not verified)

Empowering the teaching profession

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If you want to be treated as a professional, act as one! Want empowerment, be actively involved in a professional education organization!

When I visit schools today and compare them to those of 1966 when I began my teaching career, I shutter! In many cases, I cannot tell the difference between teachers and students. I see a lack of decorum that sets the teacher apart from his/her students. I see administrators who lack the skills in leadership and content knowledge.

More importantly for empowerment, membership in professional organizations has been on the decline. However, if you want your voice to be heard, you need to be part of a group that advocates for you professionally. As a former science teacher, I am proud to say that I have membership in NSTA, STANYS (Science Teachers Association of NYS), New York Academy of Sciences and local science education associations. I have taken on leadership roles in these organizations and work towards improving quality science education. I let my voice be heard nationally, regionally and locally! And, don't forget either the NEA or AFT affiliate, your strongest advocate.

My advice: Take charge-join and be an active member in a professional organization.

Anonymous (not verified)

Student motivation

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I agree that student motivation is important and that teachers need to find other ways to make certain students engaged. It is important for teachers to practice what they teach to their students. We are models and students really pay attention to what their teachers are doing. Therefore, if they see that their teachers are working hard, they may want to be like them. During a silent reading time, teachers should read to and if it is writing time, they should write. Students will watch and learn and might become more motivated because they are watching their teachers learning.

Anonymous (not verified)

Empowering the Teaching Profession

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I agree with you that classroom teachers are often treated like children by certain administrators. When a school has an administration that stands up for their teachers (and even listens to them), the teachers are certainly going to be more motivated and confident in themselves and their day-to-day teaching, and they will be more motivated to improve their overall work ethic.

I think one reason teachers are given less respect then perhaps they deserve is that the "bad apples" get the majority of the press. If a teacher does something inappropriate, it will be a lead news story. And, even within a school, there are teachers who are allowed to "coast" to retirement without maintaining high expectations and standards in the classroom. With this environment, it seems the good teachers are not being given a level playing field.

Dave Menshew (not verified)

Teacher Empowerment

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How interesting! I just posted an article on my Five Freedoms page about student empowerment: http://fivefreedomsnet.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=2089480%3ABlogPost...

In terms of teacher empowerment, I see a couple of things that immediately come to mind. First and foremost is the dismal appearance far too many teachers project to the students. Let me be specific. I am very old school. I have worn a tie to school almost every day of my 14+ years of teaching. Why? Well, I asked a professor in college why he wore one. His immediate answer was, that was one way that he showed his respect for his students. Second, when teachers show up looking worse than the kids, what subliminal messages do they send? Also, I know that if I have to meet a parent after school, it always gives me a good feeling to know I won’t be the worst dressed person in the room.

Some years ago, I was coming back from lunch and walking past another teacher who was conducting his kids into his room. One of his learners stopped, turned to me, pointed and said: “There’s Mr. Menshew, HE came to school to teach.” Not sure I wanted friction with other staff members, but the kids’ feelings and observations are what they are.

Ya wanna be empowered and treated like professionals? Get rid of the sandals and faded tee shirts. I was part of the large rally at the capital in Sacramento again Arnie’s budget cuts. When I looked around, I wondered what image we projected to the press and world at large.

Would you want your doctor or lawyer to show up to work looking like that?

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