Redefining Teachers as True ProfessionalsOctober 26th, 2011 at 16:32
So why is it that doctors play a key role in running the institutions (hospitals) where they practice their profession and defining what constitutes quality practice, but teachers generally don’t? Aren’t these both considered “professions”, and as such should be given comparable stature? No hospital would think of having a governance structure where doctor’s don’t play a key role, particularly in the delivery of medical care. Shouldn’t teachers play a comparably critical role in running their schools and defining what constitutes educational practice?
Perhaps as a parent, and not a professional educator, I am not in the ideal position to pose these questions, but I don’t find the teachers I know posing them. The teachers I know personally generally define themselves as “labor”, union organized labor in most cases, in opposition to the people that run their schools, who are considered the “management”. Even the teachers whose words I see on Daily KOS or elsewhere in the media championing their profession rarely call for that profession to play the key roll governing their schools and the education process generally.
As Justin Baeder pointed out in his Ed Week blog piece last January, “On Being a Professional and an Employee”, the definition of teaching as a “profession” is still problematic…
Consider other professions such as medicine and law — while many doctors and attorneys are on staff, many others are in the more lucrative position of working for themselves, or being partners in the organization for which they work… Public school educators, without exception, are employees and have bosses. Teachers have principals, principals have directors, directors have superintendents, superintendents have school boards, and school boards have voters.
So the fact that teachers are not “partners”, not independent agents for hire, but instead are just worker-bees slotted at the bottom of a multi-level hierarchy contributes to their lack of status. Baeder rightly calls out the need to examine that supervisory hierarchy and advocates a move to a more egalitarian reframing of the profession of teaching as part of the solution…
But being a good employee does not mean simply doing what you’re told; it means being true to the mission of the organization, even when this requires speaking up and challenging organizational policies and “orders” in order to uphold the interests of students.
Having studied the history of America including the history of the public education system, I understand where this labor versus management, “us versus them” paradigm comes from. Unlike doctors, teachers generally did not have their own “practice”, and therefor did not contract with a school as a venue to engage in that practice, but were instead paid employees of the school or more likely the district that manages the school. Since public school teaching has historically been a female-dominated job, teachers have been framed more as low-level worker-bees, rather than high-powered (even stereotypically arrogant) professionals like doctors.
This paradigm was solidified by events in the early 20th century when the public education system was challenged as “inefficient” by the muckraking journalists, opportunistic politicians and business executives. To defend against these attacks, the public education system attempted to redefine itself in business rather than academic terms and made every attempt to demonstrate its “business efficiency”, including placing businessmen and business-oriented administrators, rather than teachers, in the positions of educational decision-making authority. This business (rather than academically) oriented management later became the adversaries across the bargaining table as teachers subsequently organized as unionized labor in the 1960s.
But this paradigm, with businessmen rather than teachers running our public schools, diminished rather than enhanced those schools as educational venues. I believe that the current degree of educational standardization and high stakes testing, as well as efforts to push these trends even further, are part of the legacy of that paradigm. Teachers have not been in a position to be seen as true “professionals” who legitimately should control education practice, as doctors continue to play a critical role governing medical practice. As such they and their organizations have been ineffective in countering this trend.
So now into the second decade of the 21st century, it is long past time in my opinion that teachers redefine their profession and assert their authority as legitimate governors of the educational process. Teachers should run their schools, define what constitutes a “good teacher” and a “good school”, govern and police their own profession including controlling the training and certification of new members of their profession. Anything less diminishes teachers as true professionals and diminishes the entire educational process. This at a time in human history when the complexity of our world begs the need for a new generation of highly talented, creative and skilled people to come into their own.