Redefining Teachers as True Professionals

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.

10 replies on “Redefining Teachers as True Professionals”

  1. “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.”

    How I dearly wish the political will existed to accomplish this! Being a public employee is often offered as a reason why we have to endure top-down supervision and mandates since, after all, we’re employed by the taxpayers! They pay our salaries, therefore we should do/act/produce according to their demands!

    Unfortunately for that argument, though, it all falls down when we consider police officers, firefighters, and other types of public employees. Can you imagine politicians trying to create a department or board (either appointed or elected) made up mostly of people without firefighting experience, whose sole purpose it was to tell firefighters how to do their jobs? Can you imagine getting more and tougher fires (students) but cutting salaries, and then telling firefighters that you expect better firefighting outcomes (test scores) because, as we all know, it’s almost exclusively the firefighter’s (teacher’s) fault if the fire (student) doesn’t respond as desired and expected?

    I can’t imagine a Department of Firefight-ation doing this to firefighters, because they are PROFESSIONALS who know better than anyone else how best to fight fires! I think there are definitely some gender-stereotype issues at play here but, honestly, I really don’t understand what exactly politicians are thinking when they insist they know better than teachers when it comes to assessing understanding, designing curricula, setting desired outcomes, and all of the other things now dominated by political hands. The hubris is unbelievable.

    So the question then becomes, what do you suggest? You say teachers should “assert their authority”, but you don’t define what you mean. We’re in an awkward spot, because the very people against whom we would theoritically assert are the same ones often in a position to hire, fire, evaluate, and/or pay us! What do you think?

  2. Amy… good points and questions.

    I like your analogy with firefighters, since unlike doctors, they are on the public payroll as teachers are.

    As to the path forward, some thoughts…

    1. One thread is to keeping opposing educational standardization and keep the drum beat up against high-stakes standardized testing, standardized curriculum, federal involvement in education (like no reauthorization of NCLB and maybe eliminating the Ed Dept altogether).

    2. Another is to encourage teachers, particularly when their schools fall into fiscal or other crisis (which seems to happen a lot these days) is to re-frame their schools as charters run by the teacher without a principal functioning as a “boss”, like was done in Detroit.

    3. Teachers unions can re-frame themselves more as professional organizations than labor unions (in a labor vs management context) and push to play more of a role in everything that has to do with teachers, training, hiring, quality of practice, pedagogy and fighting for more professional latitude on how they teach. If teachers did not now have unions this might be impossible, but since they do, they can re-frame their 19th century-style associations into something more “professional” for the 21st century.

    That’s just a start… thanks for asking… and I’d be interested in your further thoughts.

  3. Cooper –

    All three of your suggestions for “what to do” are good ones.

    The first is an immediate imperative. In Louisiana, as in other locales, teachers have reached the point of “weighing” their fear of reprisal with the reality that within the next year, their traditional public schools along with their jobs are on the chopping block. There is no longer a “choice” of whether to make that leap of faith and speak out against the reform agenda of privatization.

    The second suggestion is a provocative one that, if taken seriously, could actually open the way for educators to “cash in” on the corporate mantra of charters as the answer to transforming public education. There are indeed examples of teacher-led schools both charter and non-charter. Those examples could be cloned and devoted educators could be found to take on the responsibility. The greatest challenge there is “competition” they would find in the face of the almighty profit motive of the charter movement and its corporate backers. It would also entail entering the Political arena and the millions of dollars it would cost to influence legislation already crafted or in the works that favor private enterprise and the profit motive over quality education.

    The third suggestion seems obvious to me, but my conversations with unions don’t encourage me to think that they would be willing to “re-frame” themselves. It’s a different mindset and, again, legislation is in the works that will make it all but impossible for unions to be a viable option for teachers. I believe the current movement toward teacher organized and led associations like Save Our Schools March may provide a voice and the profesionalism that should be afforded to teachers.

    Thanks for your commentary.

  4. Lee –

    I appreciate your second to my ideas in this area. A couple of thoughts on yours…

    I would suggest that you do not tar all charter schools with the brush of competition or profit. From the research I have done, it is approximately fifteen percent of charter schools that are either for-profit or are a non-profit managed by a for-profit enterprise. The rest have been set up by an array of true non-profits or community organizations in an attempt to proactively address gaps in the public education system, for example the Green Dot charters in Los Angeles. Teachers can launch a charter school that they run (like the one in Detroit) without getting into the whole profit/competition thing.

    Also, though teacher unions are being diminished by the efforts of red state governors & legislatures, they still represent existing infrastructure that can be reframed as more of a professional organization.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  5. Lefty,

    Thank you for this thoughtful critique.

    Myron Lieberman said that many of his ideas on professional empowerment came from his doctor/wife. He was and still is mortified that the AFT hijacked the caterpillar to butterfly evolution of the NEA, making it a Frankenstein affair.

    I welcome your thoughts on some of my blog, which ponders the reality today that our teachers have been trained as an army of thuggish industrial political activists. The “professional” association that should have been the NEA is unrepresented in our country politically.


  6. Anthony… I read your most recent blog piece on this topic and made this comment…

    Anthony… I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the development of industrial style teacher unions in the 1960s. I don’t know enough about that history.

    Thank you also for laying out Lieberman’s critique of the U.S. public education and particularly the teacher unions… but from my understanding of the situation I don’t things as he does.

    What I see is that the public education system has become a huge bureaucratic “command and control” entity run at the state level and increasingly being centralized through standardization to federal control. But the human development they are attempting to control rather than facilitate is hindered, rather than enhance by their efforts. This standardization is replacing real learning with test preparation.

    IMO teacher unions have been focused in the industrial paradigm because teachers, as a majority female group, have been viewed by male-dominated society as managed laborers rather than true professionals. I think its time that they redefine the work of teaching as a true profession.

    IMO, the education process needs to be MORE, not less anarchic. Schools should be run informally by professional teachers and empowered students who are expected to be the directors of their own educations, with teachers as their high-powered facilitators as needed.

  7. Your old-fashioned photo explains a lot. Back in the era when the picture was taken, town councils hired teachers, very often women. The difference between teachers and doctors or firefighters is that most doctors or firefighter were men, and it is still mostly true. One big reason education reforms fail is that society does not consider those tasked with the implementation as professionals (

  8. Hello,
    I am currently taking courses in “Teacher Leadership”. I went back to school mainly to increase my salary, but now I am seeing things in a new light. Our latest assignment was to research blogs and comment on one that we feel strongly about. As I was researching, I came across the study about teachers being overpaid. I came to “Lefty Parent” and read your thoughts. I agree with your analogy about doctors playing a role in their institutions. I am learning so much about the importance of teacher leadership and feel that the courses I am taking are aligned with your blog. I must admit though it is hard not to feel like a “laborer” especially when the rest of society views us that way. I wish more teachers would see the importance in this topic, and more policy makers would truly value our contributions to society. Thank you for your blog

  9. Mary… Thank you first of all for being there to help our young people with their development! I wish you and your fellow teachers got more acknowledgement of your skills and wisdom!

    And glad to hear you resonate with this idea of teachers taking more control of their profession, it just seems so obvious to me as a parent and a long time activist, but I have never been a professional teacher myself.

    So I would be curious what they are teaching you in these teacher leadership classes. Is different school governance model and more learner-driven pedagogical models even part of your Ed Masters curriculum? Wish I could be a “fly on the wall” in some of your classes!

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