Teachers Taking Control: A Historical Context

In my previous blog piece, “Teachers Take Control of a Detroit School”, I got generally positive comments on Daily KOS on the good news this story represented for progressives. One commenter, a former teacher, wished they could have been involved in such a school, while instead…

I taught in secondary schools for sixteen years. I left because I had two choices… 1. Fight constantly with administrators, school boards, district officials et al for the freedom to teach the best possible curriculum with the best possible methodology for the students in my classroom… OR 2. Blindly follow the wishes of all of the above people regarding curriculum and methodology to the detriment of my students… I got tired of fighting and left the profession. I would give anything to teach in a school like this where teachers and students matter more than filling out forms that confirm that standard 12.1.3 Letter H was taught on school day 42.

I responded to the comment suggesting that the commenter encourage their friends who were still in the teaching profession to maybe try and emulate the action of the Detroit teachers. The commenter responded…

Well… the vast majority of them preferred to go with the program and make no waves. Teachers are feeling hopeless and defeated in the face of constant outside criticism and pressure.

Given my inclination to look at things from a hierarchy vs circle of equals framing, what I read here is a report of downtrodden people at the bottom of an unsupportive pecking order. The hierarchical top-down control model at its worst, motivating compliance, but little human initiative or agency beyond that.

We in the US live in a society that is in the throes, like much of the rest of the world, of a transition from these hierarchical to more egalitarian ways of organizing society and structuring societal institutions. This can be seen most obviously on the world stage in the struggle of various countries to move towards a more democratic political process, based on on fair elections, the peaceful transferral of power, and the rule of laws rather than the rule of people seeing themselves above the law.

In the history of the United States, where we have had an evolving egalitarian political system for over 200 years, this transitional struggle can be seen more clearly perhaps outside the political sphere. The Detroit teachers at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy who petitioned to take over their school are a case in point.

That “constant outside criticism and pressure” the commenter indicated that teachers are getting I see as remnants of the old hierarchical patriarchal system as it has perpetuated itself in our country. I use the term “patriarchal” (which I know a lot of people don’t resonate to) because in the case of the status of teachers, I think it is all tied up in the status of women vs men, and the control of women by men.

If you look at US history, “teachers” (adults who teach children) were generally women with significantly lower status than say “professors” (adults who teach young and other adults) who were generally men and have enjoyed a much higher status. These female teachers have been mythologized as “school marms” (sort of substitute mothers) that looked after and instructed the kids beyond what parents were able to do. In the patriarchal pecking order of God, ”the man”, other men, women and finally children, anyone having to do with the care and development of the people at the bottom of that order is given a relatively low status, which manifests in terms of lower salary, less authority, and more top-down control.

With the changes in the status of women in the second half of the 20th Century, the teaching profession has no longer been able to depend on tapping a broad pool of talented female people who by the restrictions of societal convention were more compliant than men and had few other options for “professional” employment. Schools have increasingly had to “get what they pay for” and pay teachers more, and teachers have empowered themselves to organize and unionize their profession.

But as Justin Baeder points out in his Ed Week blog piece, “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 as perhaps a big part of the problem, 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.

Easier said than done, given my commenter’s take on the state of mind of their fellow teachers.

Such an approach Baeder is speaking to would involve reworking the hierarchy into what some people have called a “hierarchy of facilitation”, or in the business world as “turning the org chart upside down”. In this more egalitarian model, instead of issuing marching orders, the superintendents, school boards and principals would be saying to teachers, “tell us how we can assist and support you to better do your job.”

Most people might ask, “Yeah… in whose lifetime?”

Baeder to me seems a bit naïve in calling out this solution without also acknowledging the historical and systemic context that makes the solution particularly difficult to implement. As I said above, historically teaching has been a female dominated profession, and systemically, it has been influenced by patriarchal thinking where teachers have been slotted as low status with low authority, taking marching orders from their generally male superiors.

As we work for evolutionary change in our society, including the empowerment of ever larger segments of our population (even extending to youth), I think it is useful to understand and even call out the context in which we progressive people struggle for the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Hopefully not to discourage us, but to make us realize that we will have to cut ourselves loose from some perhaps all too familiar chains to take the needed steps forward.

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