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Class Struggle: Empowering the Teaching Profession

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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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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Michelle Sarabia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. We, as professionals, need to step up and take over licensing, setting standards, enforcing ethics, etc. just as lawyers and doctors do. Until we take that responsibility, we will continue to be stepped on by an outdated system that still carries forward patriarchial biases that are a century out of date.

Name withheld's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers may be compared to Doctors and Lawyers, however this comparison, for a great majority of our profession, is misguided. As as former business professional turned teacher, I was surprised to see that the Pareto principle can be applied to the teaching profession. The teachers who want and can make a difference are in the minority. There are teachers in our profession who exist to retire, knowing that job security backed with union support will allow them to stay in the classroom with minimal effort. These folks are merely overpaid day-care providers.

Michael C. Duran, M.Ed.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with most points in your article, but I wonder why all the hostility held against teachers by the mainstream media? Don't you feel this has some influence on the ability of teachers to be empowered? When unions step up with a unified voice of teachers, the press treats us like we are a bunch of lazy slackers using a union to keep from having to do actual work.

Even teachers belittle their own profession by referring to non-education jobs as "the real world." Believe me, we see more "real" than any computer tech, engineer, accountant, banker, construction worker or small business person ever sees in their day at work. I ought to know, as I worked in Information Technology for 6 years and took a $25,000/year pay cut to become a teacher. Why is it that when a firefighter commits his life to the improvement of others that he is praised and a teacher, who does it only after 5 years of college and an un-paid internship gets treated like a glorified babysitter?

I agree, it is both sides. Teachers should act as professionals. Administrators and outside entities should treat them like professionals. People act in accordance to the expectations set before them (this works for students, too, FYI).

I just saw a story on TV last night about teachers who were being reprimanded for having "inappropriate" pictures on their own personal web pages (Facebook, etc.). These were not illegal activities, but things that an accountant, doctor, lawyer or engineer is welcomed to do... you know, having a beer at a party/BBQ, going on a vacation (you know sometimes you might have on swimwear in your vacation pics, right?), and just generally being an average human being. Evidently according to school district administration these things were "inappropriate" to have on their personal web page photo albums.

Bull hockey. Enough, we do have to stand up for ourselves and demand the respect we desire. I do not ask to go to the restroom, I simply go. If inadequate time is provided by the school schedule, I will make my own arrangements. If I would like to leave my school for lunch, I simply do. I do not ask. If forced to sign a "sign-in" sheet or timeclock in my salaried contract job, I will also object to this (many districts, including Texas' largest, require this at all campuses. I find it demeaning. What other salaried jobs have a sign-in and sign-out sheet?).

Yes, the fault comes from both sides, but we can only control what we do. We should monitor and change our own behavior in order to affect change.

-Michael C. Duran, M.Ed. (not Anonymous... no fear here)

Michael C. Duran, M.Ed.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, I think a couple of those were typos (were, where may or may not be). The "effect/affect" issue is a biggie, though. I suggest not using either word if you aren't sure... that's my rule for myself!

That said, Dan, you do realize that you should mark yourself down for at least two errors. First, if you use a number below 12, it should be spelled out (three, not 3). Also, if you have a quote at the end of a sentence, the punctuation goes inside the "quotation marks."

I do agree with your general point. Teachers receive extra scrutiny on issues such as grammar and spelling. If I see another back-woods ebonics-speaking teacher being interviewed on TV, I might actually vomit. Some of the people representing our field are not doing so in a way that reflects the respect we are looking to receive.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is totally sad that we have to "watch our backs" and "get permission" to speak to the press in fear of retribution from the Superintendent of schools or our administration, even when we are doing good works and sharing professionally learned information from years and years of schooling and wisdom working in our field. Since we are not a profit making business, and two or more new teachers can be hired in place of one highly educated and experienced professional, budgets drive the hiring process and the quality of our school expenditures. Valuing our experienced teachers comes from towns and communities passing the school budget first, and our administrators recognizing the value of our experience and training.

Districts routinely pull tricks out of their hats to give experienced teachers overloaded classes, or bad schedules to "push them out into retirement" so they can save money and hire cheaper replacements.

Tenure sometimes protects the relative that was hired, or the close friend of administrators who need jobs and do not produce, but the typical teacher is enthusiastic, dedicated and has a passion for education. Young people are not entering the teaching profession due to the low pay and the lack of respect. Some of our talented tutors and brilliant minds will not be sharing with our next generation because of this. They are interested in having a quality life and a substantial paycheck and be independent thinkers.

Most of us are able to ignore and shut out the negative and create our own world within our classrooms, unleashing our creativity, passion for the subject and topics, and work with "our kids" with unbridled enthusiasm. As curriculum become more and more dictated and regulated, even that opportunity for control is leaving the classroom and more and more future teachers will spend two or three years--feel strained under the restrictions, and then move on to another industry. This will allow the administration to spend their ever strained budget on new teachers, spend time training them and working with them and their ability to discipline their classrooms and helping them to speak with empathy and understanding, only to have to replace them again, and again.

Although I am nearing the end of my beloved profession, and feeling pushed out, as more responsibility and individuality is taken away from me, I still often feel the enthusiasm I had the first year I entered my own classroom and accepted the charge of loving and educating my students. Perhaps only the truly dedicated will survive and we will continue to have classrooms filled with those who really care about our children. That is my hope.

Matt Johnston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am willing to concede that many principals are indeed male out of proportion to the rest of the "frontline" education corps, that is teachers, educational support staff and school level administration. I have no data to suggest otherwise.

However, based on my experience, most principals and school level adminsitrators come from the ranks of teachers who have moved up. Whether this is a wise human resource policy is debateable (just being a good teacher does not make you a good administrator--the skills are very different). But like any profession, there are choices that one makes along the way that alter the ability to reach the upper levels of the profession.

Take my profession for example--the law. Every couple of years someone bemoans the lack of proportional representation among women at the higher partnership levels of big law. The profession does not lack for women entering the profession, indeed, most law school classes are basically even in gender representation. The problem is that along the way, women make choices regarding what is most important in life, family, children, less stressful work environment, etc. These are valid, important choices, but ulitmately those choices often mean the sacrifice of attaining the top levels of the profession.

I would dare say that the same holds true in teaching. From nearly every account I have read and the knowledge of the average day of my daughter's principals, theirs is often a 10-12 hour day often at the school. Such a day impacts the lives of teachers' families and in many families the choice is made that the father will sacrifice time away from the family to pursue the bigger paycheck. I make no negative or positive judgments about this, it is simply part of a larger trend. So as female teachers reach that point of making a decision whether to stay with the family and stay a teacher rather than chase the dream of becoming a principal, a decision is made to remain a teacher.

Given the burgeoning ranks of female principals out there, the data suggests that female administrators are given the same opportunities as men and thus are making the move.

In short, I believe the "patriarchal" archetype no longer really holds true. I don't deny that it may once have been the norm, but not today and I would dare say that most teachers and female administrators would likely agree.

L. Miles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your statements, especially about technology. Even when I pay for new software to help students, (example: Inspiration, a writing assistance orogram) my own classroom computer is "ghosted" in the summer, deleting the software. I cannot get to the specific websites I need for lesson planning because the same restrictions the district has on the sudents, are the restrictions placed on the teachers. We cannot get a password to choose the sites we want. Being one of the Intel Teach to the Future teachers, and being one of the lead technology teachers for our school, one woud think that I could get a little more freedom to choose. I also agree with you about what I call the "Good ol Boy" network. We may have an 80-20 ratio of female to male teachers in our school but it is always the males, coaches, who "rock" according to the administration. The only accolades other teachers get are in private evaluations. We need administrators who choose ways to recognize all teachers, individually, with respect and praise. It could be a personal letter of appreciation that goes into our teacher file, or it could be a public award or recognition of some achievement during the school year. It is a very disheartening profession sometimes. The students are the ones who make the difference: their smiles, their improvement, their little tokens and gifts. It is too bad the administrators choose to recognize most of us only after 20 years of service.

Nancy Flanagan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The male/female balance of teachers in the U.S. is currently approaching 20/80. In the south, more than 80% of teachers (elementary and secondary) are female. The highest percentage of male teachers is in New England and collective bargaining states. I think the data does raise questions around power and money, and speaks to the relative perceived economic value of teaching as an occupational cluster.

Good post, Anthony--you can't think about teacher professionalism without seeing it in historical context. The seminal book on the topic is "Schoolteacher" by Dan Lortie. I read it in grad school, around 1980. I recently re-read a new edition and it was depressing how little has changed--in fact, it's possible that we're further away from teacher professionalism than before.

Cynthia Alvarado's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really don't need a principal to send students to and I taught just fine without state standards. I looked at things like Iowa tests, back in the pre-standards days. My district had TEACHER developed curriculum guidelines, that worked, before the government stuck their bureaucratic noses in my career. I discipline my own students, even though, at the moment, I have a good principal. Administrators come and go, and if you count on them, your discipline is inconsistent. I think education, like successful corporations, needs to divest itself of middle level management to be lean enough to do the job in the current times.In my opinion, that means principals, assistant superintendents, etc. We need to empower those in the classroom, who actually see students daily, to do what is right for those students.

Mary Burch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that children are all too often left out of the equation for academic success. Teachers are held up for scrutiny by administrators, the board of education and the community. Teaching methods and styles are studied minutely, and teachers are held to rigorous standards. However, many children sit all day and do nothing but watch the teacher perform (or worse, they compete with the teacher for everyone's attention by being behavior problems). Students who are not engaged learn very little and retain almost nothing.
Parents complain that their children are bored--this is an accurate assessment. People who do nothing are oftentimes bored and dissatisfied. I believe that more effort needs to be placed on student motivation. I have had to work with each of my children to help them become scholars; it was never automatic. When kids start working as hard as their teachers, there will be huge increases in learning.
Mary P. Burch
Lompoc High School Library

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