I begin with the negative, but I promise that–if you stick it out–you will encounter a vision of what teaching could be.
The first question: is teaching a calling, a profession, or just another job?
“So, are they quitting because they’re fed up with their heavy-handed union bosses?” The hostility of the question took me by surprise. I was explaining to my dinner companion, a veteran lawyer, that 40% of teachers leave the field within five years, and right away he jumped to his anti-union conclusion disguised as a question.
No, I explained. Unions don’t seem to have anything to do with it; it’s most often related to working conditions: class size, discipline policies, and how much control and influence they have over their daily activities.
“It’s not money?” he asked, aggressively suspicious. Not according to surveys, I explained.
I described what I’d seen of a teacher’s daily work life. He interrupted, “How can it be a profession if you can’t take a leak when you need to?”
While that’s not a criterion that social scientists use to define a profession, my cut-to-the-chase acquaintance might be on to something.
Can teaching be a true profession if you can’t take a bathroom break when nature calls?
Certainly, teachers and their supporters want teaching to be seen as a profession. They’ve won the linguistic battle. If you Google ‘the teaching profession,’ you’ll get about three times more references than ‘teaching as an occupation’ or ‘the teaching occupation.’
Social scientists have no doubt about the low status of teaching. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania says, “We do not refer to teaching as a profession. It doesn’t have the characteristics of those traditional professions like medicine, academia, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, et cetera. It doesn’t have the pay, the status, the respect, the length of training, so from a scientific viewpoint teaching is not a profession.”
He carefully refers to teaching as an occupation, noting that it’s the largest occupation of all in the USA. And growing at a faster rate than the student population.
Jennifer Robinson, a teacher educator at Montclair State University in New Jersey, disagrees with Ingersoll. She believes our familiarity with teachers and schools breeds disrespect for teaching. “We don’t treat teaching as a profession because we’ve all gone to school and think we’re experts. Most people think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ which we would never do with doctors.”
Robinson suggests that a significant part of our population–including lots of politicians–does not trust teachers. She cites the drumbeat of criticism in the media, blaming teachers for low test scores.
A common criticism is that teachers come from the lowest rungs of our academic ladder, a charge that Ingersoll says is simply not true. “About 10% of teachers come from institutions like Macalester, Yale and Penn,” he says. “Perhaps 25% come from the lowest quartile of colleges,” meaning that close to two-thirds of teachers attend the middle ranks of our colleges and universities.
According to Ingersoll, one hallmark of a profession is longevity, sticking with the work. In that respect, teaching doesn’t make the grade. As noted above, his research indicates that at least 40% of new teachers leave the field within five years, a rate of attrition that is comparable to police work. “Teaching has far higher turnover than those traditional professions, lawyers, professors, engineers, architects, doctors and accountants,” Ingersoll reports. Nurses tend to stick around longer than teachers. Who has higher quit rates, I asked him? “Prison guards, child care workers and secretaries.”
Perhaps teaching is a calling? Those who teach score high on measures of empathy and concern for others and social progress, Ingersoll and others have noted. As a reporter and a parent, I have met thousands of teachers whose concern for their students was visible and admirable.
Trying to elevate the profession’s status (or arguing about it) is a waste of energy. That’s the view of Robert Runté, an associate professor on the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay that’s now 20 years old, he wrote, “Since one needs schools before one can have school teachers, teachers are stuck with their status as salaried employees working within large organizations. Teachers have always been and will always be subject to direction from their school board and the provincial bureaucracy. They are, to that degree at least, already proletarianized.
Consequently, the whole question of whether teaching is a profession, or can become one, is a red herring. The real issue is the degree to which teachers can resist deskilling and maintain some measure of autonomy within the school bureaucracy.”
To some, he may be going off the deep end when he asserts that the construct of ‘profession’ is a trumped-up label created to flatter workers and distinguish themselves from others.
The only feature that ever really distinguished the professions from other occupations was the “professional” label itself. What we are is knowledge workers, and as such we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to the public to become reflective practitioners. As reflective practitioners we can reassert, first our ability, and then our right, to assume responsibility for the educational enterprise. We must stop worrying about unimportant issues of status and focus instead on the real and present danger of deskilling.
“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” where the heads of students are opened up and ‘knowledge’ is poured in by teachers? That’s how some politicians and education ‘reformers’ understand the role of schools and teachers. And how much skill does it take to pour a pitcher? Not much, and so why should we pay teachers more, or even give them job protection? Just measure how well they pour (using test scores of course), compare them to other teachers (value-added), and then get rid of the poor pourers. Bingo, education is reformed!
Teaching has taken some big hits in recent years, driven in great part by the education reform movement that argues, disingenuously, that “great teachers” make all the difference. This position allows them to ignore the effects of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health and substandard housing on a child’s achievement.
Most parents are not fooled by this. Their respect for their children’s teachers and schools remains high.
So what’s to be done? Professor Lethbridge asserts that teachers should embrace their role of ‘knowledge workers,’ and I agree, sort of. I believe that schools ought to be viewed as ‘knowledge factories’ in which the students are the workers, teachers are managers/foremen/supervisors, and knowledge is the factory’s product. In that model, students must be doing real work, an issue I wrote about recently.
It’s not all grim. Curtis Johnson of Education Evolving notes that “There are now some 75 schools where teachers are in charge, have authority over everything that counts for student and school success. At EE we called them ‘teacher-powered’ schools. In these schools, the teachers are in fact professionals and turnover is very low. For readers who find this interesting, check it out at http://www.teacherpowered.org.”
And Susan Graham, a teacher, has her own suggestion: “Whether you call us ‘professionals’ or ‘knowledge workers’, what we want is enough time to do our job well; the discretion to apply the knowledge and skills we have worked to acquire; sufficient collaboration to continue to inform and improve our practice; and respect for our intention to act in the best interest of our students.”
To show respect for teaching and teachers, I suggest that we leave the ‘profession/occupation’ argument to academics. Instead, let’s consider doing three things:
1) Supporting leaders whose big question is “How is this child intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent is this child?”
2) Electing school board members who believe in inquiry-based learning, problem solving, effective uses of technology, and deeper learning.
3) Insisting on changes in the structure of schools so that teachers have time to watch each other teach and to reflect on their work. These are common practice in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.
Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….
And now, my second question, timed for baseball’s postseason: Could teaching be–like baseball–a team sport? Perhaps, but getting there requires surmounting at least six obstacles.
- The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other, and teachers rarely get to see each other teach.
- Scheduling also does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spend almost all of their time in their classrooms with students, which means they have very little time to work as a team, or to share and reflect.
- The language of education does not support the notion of a team sport. Occasionally a couple of teachers ‘team teach,’ meaning they are in the classroom together. That signifies that no one else is on a team!
- Teacher evaluation does not support the idea of teaching as a team sport. It’s done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of a few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being “a team player,” the principal means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.
- The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. Teachers are rarely asked to play a role in choosing curriculum, for example.
- How teachers are paid is another problem. Time on the job and graduate courses taken are not how baseball team members are paid, but judging performance in the classroom is a challenge. The notion of “merit pay” for individuals (whether based on test scores or ‘value added’ measures) undercuts the team approach. The sport of baseball has easy-to-understand measures like batting averages and earned runs, as well as more complex numbers like ‘Wins above Replacement,’ but education is not so easy to measure. Policy makers supporting merit pay schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work. There is a solution–judge the school–which I present below.
In schools where teachers are on teams, they have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of a baseball team manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.
I believe that most teachers want to play a team sport. They prefer to work together and to have big hopes, dreams and goals for their school and all its students. One of my strongest memories from my own high school teaching was the joy of working with other English teachers, even to the point of swapping classes for a few weeks so each of us could teach a play or a poet we felt particularly well-qualified to teach.
So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s “win-loss” record, which is more complicated than baseball’s, should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this in ‘Trust but Verify’ and in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”
And just as the winning team will divide the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could performance pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards. No more divisive ‘merit pay’ for individuals….but real rewards for everyone.
A baseball season lasts 162 games, plus the post-season if they do well, and the same logic should apply to judging education. To use a familiar analogy, it’s a movie, not a snapshot, because snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. A player might have five hits and 6 runs batted in in one game but do poorly in every other game. A snapshot of that one great game would be very misleading.
Because education now relies on snapshots — one score on one test on that one big day — and because so much of schooling tilts against the team sport concept, we have miles to go before anyone can confidently assert that teaching–whether it’s a profession or a job–is a team sport.
I’m interested in your thoughts on this.