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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.

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Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Comments (102) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ikhuoya's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. It seems as if my work is never done. As a new teacher, I breath, eat and sleep lesson plans. I love my job but I just wish I could get respect from the public especially the parents. I think if we want more respect, we need to value education. In other countries, teachers are praised and respected. This country respects entertainers and other occupations that earn a large salary. Without the teachers we would not have an educated population. I am sorry you do not have the summer off. I have the summer off but it seems like I am revising lesson plans and preparing for the next school year, so I do not really have a break. This profession is hard and those that survive are the ones that love their job despite the challenges. Someone mentioned about bad teachers, we would not have any if we were respected. I believe when our country is ranked 10th or lower compared to other industrialized country, then society will see the worth of our teachers.

Valarie Martin (Sacramento, CA)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am curious about what grade-level you teach, and if it is in an urban or rural environment? It is nearly impossible, in my experience, to gain the parents' attention, let alone connect with them enough so that we might share a conversation. In my opinion, the students are the people who have to believe that we care about them. Sometimes that care means requiring that they commit and complete their assignments, sometimes it means sitting in the stands and cheering on the girls' basketball team. It often means lending an ear to an adolescent who is barely surviving their first heartbreak, or who has just begun to understand that they are gay. We don't go to workshops for these skills, and heaven knows, there are no teacher's editions for us to follow in these circumstances. This is where the true level of professional commitment is found, and with the exception of the occasional big screen production, few people ever know the extent we will go to help a student learn.

Derek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in college as a freshman at 25 years old this fall. I have done some searching and realize working with people/kids and encouraging them is something I love to do. Teaching is one avenue for me, but my upbringing in a very hard working household (working with your hands is a Real Job!) has led me to believe that teaching isn't a real job, or the easy way out. Tell me why its not easy and it is a great job thanks

Anthony M Cody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Derek,

Teaching is one of the most complex and challenging professions imaginable. You first must master your subject matter. But that is only half of that challenge. It is one thing to understand a quadratic equation for yourself. As a teacher you must break your subject down and make it understandable and accessible to your students. That means you must find models, metaphors, manipulatives, hands-on activities, investigations, and so on. This is a rich process that evolves as long as you teach. You will always be looking for better ways to turn that lightbulb on over your students' heads.

The second huge challenge is to understand your students, relate to them, and help motivate them to learn. You must create a rich learning environment, which means you must build a supportive learning community. You need to develop an understanding of the workings of students' minds, as individuals, and how they operate as a social group. You need to learn to inspire the learning of that group as a conductor leads an orchestra.

The sheer work of teaching is a whole additional level, if these intellectual and interpersonal challenges were not enough. You need to organize your lessons, copy your handouts, gather your hands-on materials, write your assignments and assessments (of course you can rely on those from the publisher, but good teachers often create their own.) You need to grade papers, telephone parents, tutor students during your lunch and after school, and during the summer, take classes to keep up with your field. Is that enough work for you?


Anthony Cody

Jean M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The public reaction to our profession is an emotional one. People recant and categorize our jobs with the teachers they remember. They view our job through the eyes of the students they were. We need to be politically active in "selling" our role in our field. During a recent job action, our staff decided simply to stop volunteering. Our community and school board was shocked at how many programs came to a standstill. It is when the community realizes all the aspects of our field--the amount of time and hard work that goes into what we do every day that I believe our profession will change.

Tracy S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a very interesting and thought provoking subject. I had not heard about the Carl Chew story before reading this blog. It should have gotten much more attention in the media. I think a huge part of the problem is this: Few people outside of the teaching profession understand, as we do, what "Teaching To The Test" really means. Perhaps if more people outside of the profession understood it as we do, Chew would still be teaching at Eckstein. Eckstein's PTSA co-President believes that the WASL (test) is of some value, and the parents of students should be permitted to choose whether or not they participate in testing. I wonder what would happen if families could choose between "testing" and "non-testing" schools. How would that impact the finger-pointing?
I don't believe I know one single effective classroom teacher that would fail his/her students if standardized testing were to disappear tomorrow. On the contrary, we believe we could teach much more effectively without the restrictions of NCLB.

Wendy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a kindergarten teacher and teaching kindergarten is not easy. I love my job but it is a very demanding profession. I am so frustrated by individuals who comment "Oh, you teach, must be nice to have your summers off." Most people have no idea how much time and effort, especially in the elementary grades, we put into our work. I wish more people would come into our classrooms and visit not for a few minutes but for an entire day or several days. I think we would have more respect as a profession if people from the community could see us in action.

Brownie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It makes sense that teachers dress the part as a matter of professionalism and to help reinforce the notion of respect. Obviously the gym teacher and studio teachers have different dress needs from a math teacher. Studio/art teachers have a most physical job. Their responsibilities include any day to be able to lift heavy boxes, and buckets of glazes and or wet clay, climb ladders, stand on chairs bend over tall kilns, crawl on floor, scrub sinks and mop the floor. These teachers are expected to be able to work any day with a variety of tools. Some of these hand tools may include hammers, pliers, snips, screw drivers, cutters,and knives. They may also be expected to use power tools such as drill, dremels, saws and polishing machines.
Therefore, a dress code should allow for the safety of the teacher to lessen the chance of injury while on the job. Must wear material that is durable, stain resistant and protective of the skin. Dressed for safety means that consideration for not only chemicals that will be encountered on a daily basis but also must evaluate the appropriateness of the personl protective equipment that could be used such as goggles, masks, and aprons. OSHA standard for basic safety dress is to wear denim or heavy cotton pants because these materials are best suited for shedding sparks, flying shards of metal, chips of wood, polishing compounds, ceramic dust and glazes.
Good judgment and common sense has to be used. Clothing should be compatible with a professional and safety conscience work environment. It will be modest and conservative in style. These teachers need to dress in a manner that is professional and distinguishable from attire of students.
No blue jeans. No t-shirts with logos. No high heels.
Capri length pants, khakis, colored denim jeans, and sneakers are acceptable.

Hannelina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just read your comment, as I searching for appropriate attire to wear as an art teacher. You state that OSHA says to wear denim for safety, so I thought, "Okay! I'll get some really professional looking jeans, dark wash, wide leg...something like that. Dress them up with nice shoes." Then you state at the bottom "No blue jeans." What? What other kind of denim do you recommend? So as teachers we are to dress as professionally as possible to increase respect for our profession, yet we are not to wear high heels but sneakers are okay? This is confusing.

Hannelina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just read your comment, as I searching for appropriate attire to wear as an art teacher. You state that OSHA says to wear denim for safety, so I thought, "Okay! I'll get some really professional looking jeans, dark wash, wide leg...something like that. Dress them up with nice shoes." Then you state at the bottom "No blue jeans." What? What other kind of denim do you recommend? So as teachers we are to dress as professionally as possible to increase respect for our profession, yet we are not to wear high heels but sneakers are okay? This is confusing.

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