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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

anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it interesting how the school systems have changed to look as though because there are more females than males typically now in the profession, that we have come along way. This is not true. It does appear that there are more females in the elementary grades and more males in the secondary and collegiate levels. When we have a child misbehaving in our classroom it is similar to the days when our mother says, "Wait until your father hears this!". Instead of father, we use the pricipal. It is refreshing to see more females empowering themselves and becoming principals. As for the politicians decided what is to be done in our schools...I think this is a joke. I think any proposal or bill they pass in the education department should first be practiced by the politicians by substituting within a school building for a year or two as to prove their theories and policies actually work! I bet the amount of ridiculous bills passed on for us to accomplish in our classrooms would greatly be reduced!!!!

Robert Pruitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Certainly I applaud your points and strongly agree that teachers need to take steps to solidify their status as professionals. I further agree that this will require teachers taking up their own mantle, perhaps even requiring them to take some rather bold stands on the pressing issues of our day. The more I meditate, the more I am forced to concede that such drastic steps may be necessary if we are ever to improve our lot. Up to this point in history, education has been largely controled by high level politicians that have no skill or knowledge regarding education; if our collective destiny is left in the hands of an uneducated bureaucracy, it will never improve lest we act.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my state teachers banning together would be considered as unionizing, which is not allowed. Unfortunately in my district teachers have been black balled for standing up in what they believe in. It is very easy to earn a name for yourself. I believe though that if you don't talk about it, nothing will change. I think teachers are held accountable for their profession as well as the manners of the children they teach. Parents today just seem to see things differently than when I was in school. It amazes me to hear the way children talk to each other, their parents, and their teachers. It seems as though being a teacher is not a respectable profession anymore.

Matt Johnston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thanks for the link and I hope more people start to take a critical look at what teachers themselves can do to improve their profession.

While I agree with the notion that historical foundations seem to run counter to the ability of teachers to make an impact, I don't buy the notion that decades old patriarchy is what is inhibiting the change. Also, the analogy to Jim Crow south is a little suspect since there were wide spread laws that kept blacks down.

But one of your commenters made a very solid suggestion, get the politicians and policy makers in your classroom for more than a photo-op visit. Long term visits, either by the politcos themselves or the staffers, would be a terrific idea. Not enough people holding the reins of power have enough exposure to what works and what doesn't in a classroom.

Which leads to the point that I was trying to make in my post. Teachers have more than just latent power to make a change. They have the years in the trenches. Instead of simply allowing the unions to make the pitch for educational policy changes (and I believe there to be a major conflict of interest and purpose in allowing the union to lobby on educational policy), teachers need to band together outside of the union, put together coherent information on the success/failure/unintended consequences of a given policy. Present these to the policy makers directly. But don't just stop there, offer a real life alternative, based in the reality of a resource pool of time/money/human capital that is limited. Policymakers end up making policy based inputs from the world with a dose of their own biases. But most policymakers try not to let their biases drive the process too much, so they need input. They will take input from almost anywhere, so teachers, by their sheer numbers can have a massive impact by offering suggestions from even just a small percentage of their number. The work of so many teachers to improve the profession should not be wasted because of the isolation of the classroom.

While I am not sure that technology is the solution to every educational problem, there is no doubt that technology can help teachers compile information and present it to policymakers easier. Utilize these tools and force change.


Matt Johnston

Steve Smiley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Any bureaucracy wants to sustain itself, and that includes the teachers within it. Without a principal, where do you send children or young adults who are "not on board"? What do you teach if you take away a state-defined curriculum, or, even worse, how do you give a student a grade if you do not have a standard to measure against?

In most cases, things have stayed the same because change is scary. The alternatives may be better for the kids, cheaper, and easily manageable through software and a minimal management structure, but they require that teachers quit doing what they have been doing and step out of the box. Not likely with a steady income and no monetary incentive to do otherwise.

Other industries have a way to change. Teaching does not. That is the problem to address.

Dan Delaney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Danielle,
First let me say that I come from a family of teachers and am actively supporting the profession. Thank you for being a part of the most important profession! Now, because you represent that profession every time you write, I ask you to please check your writing before posting it worldwide. As a former high school English teacher, I'm always reading as an editor, and found 3 spelling errors in your post. While two could well have been typos, the third is a commonly mis-used word. Can you find them?
Don't feel bad, I see errors come out from the Office of the State Superintendent as well. Good luck in the "battle".

Darcie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do think that there has been a decline in our society of respect for the teaching profession. Even in the day of the spinster teacher who could not marry or loiter near ice cream parlours, I would guess that, while she was being scrutinized publicly, that there was not a lot of questioning of her teaching strategies or her expertise. I would also assume that when she gave homework it was done and when misbehavior occured that there were consequences. Teachers today seem to spend a lot of time justifying their actions and policies to people who have no training or experience in teaching other than the fact they have a child or once went to elementary school. While I have no problem with safe guards and accountability being in place, I would not presume to go into someone's place of work and tell them how to do their job. This is where I feel that teachers need to stand together and demand fairer treatment rather than continuing to be the "whipping boy" for everything that has gone wrong with the educational system.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will have to say I work in a dominate female faculty with female assistant principal and principal. If something cannot be handled with a child or situation, we look to other colleagues BEFORE turning to the "higher ups". Once we have exhausted all other options, we then turn to the principal. Unfortunately, we live in a society that thinks they can get away with whatever their issue is through a loophole or because my daddy is on the school board. Also, unfortunately in these cases they CAN get away with anything. I am a female and I will not stand for disrespect from a parent, colleague or student. If you go into your year demanding respect you will receive it.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If I could change anything about my beloved profession of almost 30 years - it would be the level of respect we receive from others, including others in the profession. Classroom teachers are routinely treated like the children they teach - by their principals, superintendents, school board members and parents. If parents don't like a decision a teacher makes, all they have to do is call the principal or superintendent, who will almost always overrule the teacher to keep the parents happy. Many teachers cannot discipline disruptive students or retain failing students. They cannot even say a student needs to be tested without taking it to a committee first so they can hear suggestions that have already been tried. Many teachers have to ask permission to use the restroom or leave the building for lunch. Many teachers have more technology knowledge in one little finger than their tech person has in her entire body, but they are not permitted to change the date and time on their computers, let alone install software that would benefit students. It really makes me sad when I see very intelligent and creative teachers begin to doubt their own knowledge and abilities because of this treatment. Even in this forum we put our names as Anonymous - because we are afraid we might get in trouble. An athlete or coach can use drugs, beat his wife or throw a chair across the floor and not only does the world applaud, we pay them millions to do it. An actress can get arrested or drive drunk and we can't wait to pay to see their pictures in magazines. Teachers can actually lose their jobs for disagreeing with their school board in public. We don't need a hero - we have plenty of them. We need to world to recognize that.

Emily's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the above comment that notes we need to team with the larger community. We should do this not only to "network", per say, but also to show them the fantastic and meaningful learning experiences we facilitate in our schools. Being the partner of a employee of my state's legislation, I'm constantly surprised at my govt. leaders' sheer cluelessness about what actually constitutes a teaching job. It's true that govt. leaders have all sorts of initiatives and "sage advice" yet have vague knowledge of how a teacher's day is structured, how curriculum is developed, how classes are differentiated, etc. By inviting the community to school events, inviting community leaders to spend a day with us, doing service learning in our communities, etc., we can can be proactive about this problem rather than just griping. Thank you for writing!

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