(Because this 2015 essay continues to attract readers from around the world, I am reprinting it, edited to include contributions from thoughtful readers.)
“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 onto something.
Can teaching be a true profession if you can’t take a bathroom break when nature calls?
(Many teachers were upset by that comment. Teacher Susan Graham wrote, “It seems to me that taking a bathroom break whenever the individual feels the urge has little to do with professionalism and a lot to do with time, context and management of workflow. Do lawyers take a “potty break” when ever they want? I can’t remember a single episode of Law and Order where a recess was called for Jack McCoy to “take a leak” or “Claire Kincaid to “go to the ladies room.” Of course that’s just TV. A lawyer would tell you that they spend most of their time meeting with clients, collecting information, reviewing case history, meeting analyzing potential outcomes, negotiating with other lawyers, and preparing presentations. The courtroom is just the tip of the iceberg.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an awareness that the time in front of the classroom is the tip of the iceberg of teaching. No, teachers don’t get to “go” whenever they need to. For one thing, teachers are expected to practice in isolation, something neither “professionals” or “knowledge workers” rarely do. Not having “enough time to pee” isn’t as much of a complaint as not having enough time to plan, to assess student work, to collaborate with colleagues, to do or read research, to make meaningful contact with parents. Teachers don’t expect to stroll out of the classroom for a potty break any more than lawyers expect to “take a leak” during the middle of cross examining a witness. What they seek is acknowledgement that teaching is highly complex work.
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.”)
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 nearly 3 billion references, while ‘teaching as an occupation’ and ‘the teaching occupation’ produce only 69 million.
Social scientists have no doubt about the status of teaching, according to Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. “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 McAlester, 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.”
(The always thoughtful Curtis Johnson had a response: “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.”)
(A contrary view came from James Noonan: “Harvard’s Howard Gardner may be best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, but he has spent a far larger proportion of his esteemed career studying the role of the professions in creating a more just and ethical world (see http://www.thegoodproject.org). The framework that he and his colleagues developed would suggest that teaching (in the U.S.) is not a profession, but that’s not to say that its status is inevitable or immutable. Many countries and systems of education (like Finland, as you suggest, and Ontario and Singapore and a host of others) have placed teachers on par with other professionals and they have found great success.
… Teaching is not a profession currently, but the first step in changing that is envisioning something different and creating spaces (like the “teacher-powered” schools mentioned above) where teachers can experience what true professionalism feels like.”)
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 of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay written more than 20 years ago, 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.”
(Thinking About Teaching: An Introduction. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1995)
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 essay continues: “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.”
(When this piece first appeared, reader Susan Johnson responded: A student of history knows that professions evolve over time. There was a time when a barber could do “surgery” and a lawyer could practice after being apprenticed to another lawyer. My own grandmother ran into trouble for delivering babies without the benefit of specialized training and credentials because that practice was fairly common in her place and time.
When teachers first formed an association, they wanted the authority to make decisions about curriculum, instruction and personnel, but were only granted the ability to bargain for salaries, benefits, and working conditions. And so, this association became a union, which will only exist as long as teachers are not the decision-makers. So it is likely true that union bosses do not want to see professional independence for teachers. However, these unions have the potential to evolve into powerful professional organizations similar to the American Medical Association.
But change is on the horizon: teachers are starting to take control of the schools in which they teach. When schools are run by teachers who make almost all decisions regarding curriculum, instruction, selection and retention of personnel, then they will be full professionals. When the next teacher shortage hits, and the “captive women” are no longer available to teach our children, I believe districts will start to offer professional autonomy to people willing to staff the nation’s classrooms.
In the meantime, I hope talented young people who want to be teachers look for positions that guarantee professional autonomy. It’s time.”)
“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in the film “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 very clear 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, which must frustrate the Michelle Rhee/Campbell Brown/Democrats for Education Reform crowd.
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.
To show respect for teaching and teachers, I suggest we leave the ‘profession/occupation’ argument to academics. Instead, let’s consider taking three steps:
1) Support leaders whose big question is “How is this child intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent is this child?”
2) Elect school board members who believe in inquiry-based learning, problem solving, effective uses of technology, and deeper learning.
3) Insist 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 standard operating procedures in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.
Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….
That is how I ended my original essay. This time, however, I want to close with this excerpt from “Teaching Ain’t Brain Surgery–It’s Tougher,” a provocative essay by Richard Hersh, a distinguished former college president and a friend:
“In 1983, school reform efforts were catalyzed by the report of “A Nation at Risk.” Reform to date has largely failed. Today we are a nation at greater risk educationally but the political pandering about “Leave No Child Behind” will get us nowhere because the issue of quality teaching is ignored.
High quality teaching is the single most important factor in helping students to learn, a truism confirmed by many years of research. This fact has been blithely ignored by critics and politicians attracted to the siren calls for facile remedies such as school uniforms, computers, vouchers, and the latest bromide, high-stakes testing. The result is inadequate student achievement and more than 50% of all teachers who leave teaching in the first three to five years of their career.
The reasons for this state-of-affairs are straightforward and swept under the rug– the training of teachers and the conditions for teaching are grossly inadequate. Moreover, in the face of an acknowledged short and long-term teacher shortage, the imperative for excellent teachers and teaching conditions is profoundly undermined by a patronizing “teaching ain’t brain surgery” mentality–the belief that anyone with an undergraduate degree can teach. Teachers in a very real sense operate on the brain too but teaching ain’t brain surgery–it’s tougher!
How are brain surgeons educated? Four years of undergraduate work, at least four arduous years of medical school, and several additional years of internships and residencies are required to master the knowledge and skills to operate on the finite topography of the brain. With such training, these superbly prepared surgeons are expected by society to operate on one anesthetized patient at a time supported by a team of doctors and nurses in the best equipped operating rooms money can buy. For this we gladly pay them handsomely.
How are teachers educated? They receive a spotty four-year undergraduate education with little clinical training. At best, an additional year for a Master’s degree is also required for professional certification. Teachers are expected by society to then enter their “operating rooms” containing 22-32 quite conscious “patients”, individually and collectively active. Often the room is poorly equipped, and rarely is help available as teachers also attempt to work wonders with the brain/mind, the psychological and emotional attributes of which are arguably as complex to master as anything a brain surgeon must learn. For this we gladly pay teachers little.
Conditions for professional service matter. Contemplate the results if our highly educated and trained brain surgeons were expected to work in the M.A.S.H. tent conditions equivalent to so many classrooms. In such an environment we would predictably see a much higher rate of failure. Or, consider if the roles were reversed-that brain surgeons were educated and rewarded as if teachers. It is virtually impossible to contemplate because it is hard to conceive of any of us willing to be operated on by someone with so little education or clinical training in a profession held in so much public disdain. We take for granted that the current professional education, training, rewards, and working conditions for brain surgeons are necessary and appropriate for the complexity and value of the work performed. Not so obvious is that teaching well in one elementary classroom or five or six secondary school classes each day is as difficult, complex, and as important a task as brain surgery. But to do it well, to be truly a profession, teachers require exponentially more education, training, better working conditions and rewards than are currently provided. Unless and until we acknowledge this reality we will not solve the teacher shortage crisis and school reform will inexorably fail. To guarantee excellent teachers, effective school reform, and ultimately high student achievement, we first need to understand that teaching is at least as complex and as difficult as brain surgery and requires significantly greater education, training, monetary reward and supportive operating conditions. … Transforming the education and training conditions is only one-half the solution. The “operating” conditions in schools to enable professional teaching practice must be radically altered. Elementary and secondary teachers today find themselves isolated in their classrooms. Teaching has become professionally stultifying. With the additional school burdens of violence, drugs, multiple languages, bureaucratic impositions, mainstreaming, and the obvious personal needs of so many students across all social and economic strata, is it really surprising to find that so few are willing to enter or remain in this calling? The best trained teachers will fail unless we provide a school setting that enables students and teachers to be successful.”