Friday, May 02, 2008

Thinking About the Professionalization of Teachers--still

For those who visit this space, you will have noticed that over the past couple of weeks, I have been posting a bit more on teh professionalization of teachers, a thought that had percolated in my mind some time ago and has recently returned. Having read this post by Bill Ferriter (aka The Tempered Radical) I am wondering about why teachers themselves don't do more to "professionalize" their work after noting that teachers regularly decry the fact that they are not treated like the professionals they claim to be.

Bill wrote the following:
One of the things that I found interesting in Nate's comments was the sense of disappointment that I wasn't advocating wholesale action on the part of teachers to stand up to "the current system"---which he obviously believes is behind all of America's failures.

Nate's opinions seem to represent the general thinking of most teachers towards education. We constantly talk about "the system" as some nebulous, dark entity that is manipulating schools from behind a dark curtain somewhere. Most of the time, we figure that ol' Madge Spellings and W are hidden behind that curtain pulling the strings of the marionet, too.

What we fail to realize is that "the system" is really network of people that includes parents, business leaders, teachers, community advocates, retirees---all of whom have equal opportunity to select leaders that have clearly delinated plans for education. Even if Nate's right (And who can't envision a legion of W's henchmen manipulating public will. Dick Cheney would make a great Sith Lord, after all), to overlook the fact that these leaders----and the entire legislative branch of the federal government---were selected by the general public is supremely arrogant.

While I don't currently agree with the choices that are being made by "the system" (my definition), I'm open to the idea that I am only one small part of that group decision making process----and I respect "the system" (my definition) enough to consider that their perspectives should be valued and considered.
Now, Bill's comments are a bit more general than my notion of creating a teaching profession more akin to the legal and medical community than the current notion of largely unionized teachers treated more like cogs in a factory than anything else. But it does present a question of how much influence do teachers really have over their own destiny.

So many times I have posted thoughts and opinions on education in this and in other forums only to be told, time and again, that I don't understand anything because I am not a teacher and therefore my opinion is less than worthless. We are often reminded that we as a society should "trust" teachers because they know what they are doing. School systems routinely put out a vibe of "leave us alone, we are the experts" despite their vocal desire for more parental involvement. Schools want involvement, but only on their terms.

What Bill seems to indicate, and probably correctly, is that teachers are but one part of a much larger decision-making body and process. Fine, but teachers should have a slightly larger voice in the process and can have a much greater impact on their own "professionalization" than any outside group or agitator (like me).

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are roughly 4 million teachers, not including special education teachers, in America as of data from 2006. In 2006, the population in America was roughly 299.3 million. Let's round that off to 300 million just to make the math easier. According to this table, 27.5 percent of the population was under the age of 19 and 12.5 percent was over the age of 65. That leaves us with a working population of 60 percent of the population or 180 million people. With 4 million teachers, that means that about 2.2 percent of working Americans were teachers. Put another way, if you grabbed at random 100 American working adults in 2006 and put them in a room, statistically 2 or 3 of them would be teachers. Again, that is not including special education teachers.

By way of comparison, the legal profession had about 761,000 members in 2006 according to the BLS, so there were nearly 6 times as many teachers as lawyers in 2006.

Furthermore, consider that every county in America has a significant group of teachers as a portion of their population. Teachers unions themselves are generally politically powerful and at least the local union chapters carry a fair amount of goodwill in teh community, even if the larger state and national unions may not.

So what is my point? The teachers themselves have the power to change the perception of their occupation, from one where they don't get the respect they demand and perhaps deserve, to one on par with the respect paid to doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers etc. The power is in their hands to make the changes in education, perception, working conditions, the exercise of their professional judgement, etc. When 2.2 percent of the working population in America can radically change the way their occupation works and is veiwed by the public, the question I have is simple.

Why don't teachers make the change themselves?


Bill Ferriter said...

Hey Matt,

I think I've got an easy answer to your question: Teachers don't make change themselves because in a profession that is driven by policy, teachers are rarely invited to the decisionmaking table.

Dan Lortie---in his classic 1970s text Schoolteacher--talks about how teaching has a false transparency. Most people believe that they know and understand teaching because they spent 18 years in a classroom themselves.

This "experience" leads to a over-confidence in most of those who work beyond the classroom. They tend to believe that they know what is needed to make teaching better because they've "been there, done that."

As a result, they tend to overlook the importance of hearing from real teachers when making decisions. There's no need to invite educators into conversations if you've spent your whole life being educated, after all.

So "making change" is difficult at best for teachers to do simply because our work is governed by policies that we have little control over or input on.

I actually feel strongly that this is one of the reasons our schools struggle to improve. If we took time to involve practitioners in decision making, we'd likely get far more informed policies that reflect the reality of schools as they are---rather than schools as we believe them to be.

Now don't get me wrong: I fully understand that with the credibility that teachers have in the broader community and with the size of our potential voting block that educators could probably get elected to policy making positions---or get those who believe in engaging educators elected to policy making positions.

So from that perspective, I completely agree with you that we could own the process if we tried.

But I also believe that teachers have felt disempowered for so long---in many ways, our work is blue collar in the sense that we do what we're told and get written up if we don't----that we've given up on getting involved in the decision making process.

Kind of reminds me of many American voters, too!

Does any of this make sense? I'm just working off my gut reaction right now.


Annette said...

Hi Matt,
I think there are many amazing teachers that are trying to professionalize teaching. In fact the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has been trying to do just that with the help of it's now over 63,000 Nationally Board Certified Teachers(NBCTs).

Last month one of New York's NBCTs wrote me an email with a frantic sense of urgency. "Annette, help--Are we a profession? Is this stated in writing anywhere?" It seems that as she was presenting information about National Board Certification and standards in the profession, her superintendent told her that he didn't think teachers were professionals and that he wished he could pay them by the hour.

So I began to research her question on-line and found some very interesting information which suggested that teaching really is a profession and I sent her all the links. With this kind of sentiment among some of our leaders, it's difficult to move our profession forward.

A couple of days ago, while I was at the New York State Staff Development Annual Conference,the speaker said that one of the problems we have in the teaching profession is that we practice in private, contrary to other professions such as medical and law which practice in public. Because these are public they have earned recognition and respect. His question to the group was, "How can we make our profession more public?"


TeachMoore said...

I'd like to add to Bill's excellent points in response to your question. I have worked in school districts (in a non-union state) where teachers were forbidden by policy to attend school board meetings even if we had children in the system. The head of the U.S. Department of Education is a non-educator, as are many of those who work in policy-making or enforcing positions at both federal and state levels.

I meet and work with outstanding teachers from around the country, many of whom (myself included) have proven track records of success with students--including raising test scores among tradtionally underserved groups. Yet, repeatedly I hear the same refrains: Our suggestions and recommendations for improving schools are ignored; we are not invited to be part of policy decisions; mandates that run counter to our experience are thrust upon us. Ever notice how many outstanding teachers have to risk insubordination or getting fired to teach well?

Perhaps one way to make the change in our image, as Annette and many others have suggested, is to make the work of real teachers and our voices more public. Voters and policy makers need to hear more directly from teachers rather than our well (and not-so-well) intentioned surrogates.

Matt Johnston said...

Thanks everyone for the comments and I will try to address them in a later post.

Annette, I would be pleased if you could send the links you distributed, I think it would be great reading. From a legal standpoint, there are some grounds for considering teachers not professionals. Typically professionals have the ability to dictate their own working conditions and to bind their employer with decisions, amoung other things. So the question is kind of interesting from a legal perspective, as well as a policy perspective.

TeachMoore, it sounds to this lawyer like you have a First Amendment violation problem. As a public meeting, school boards are open to all comers. If you are hired by and employed by a public entity, there must be a compelling reasons for your employer to deny your right to attend a public meeting and there must be no other solution but prohibiting your attendence at the meetings to effectuate the comelling need. I suggest you and your colleagues revisit that policy with a lawyer.

Anonymous said...

"We are often reminded that we as a society should "trust" teachers because they know what they are doing. School systems routinely put out a vibe of "leave us alone, we are the experts" despite their vocal desire for more parental involvement. Schools want involvement, but only on their terms."

That statement above all others catches my attention. Schools have gotten completely out of control in my opinion, and I am not talking about the students, I am talking about the "we know your child better than you do" mentality of most educators. In no other profession do you find so many who refuse to accept input from the population they serve. Examples include an attorney who listens to his clients needs and circumstances and keeps those in mind when presenting litigation, or a doctor who takes their patient or patient's caretaker's recommendations into account when prescribing treatment. When presenting an educator with limitations or circumstances affecting your child you are very rarely met with any kind of genuine support, where if I tell my childs doctor that there is a problem with the treatment he recommends he is always ready to attempt to modify the careplan if possible.

I firmly believe that this is because there is no disciplinary board in education, at least not in my state, I am not sure if any state has a board that works in this manner. I know that each state has a board who controls licensing, but I know of none that hold regularly schedule disciplinary hearing such as the boards that control EVERY other profession... State bar associations, State boards of Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy, all hold regular disciplinary hearings and regulate licensing beyond initial application, and as far as I know they all regulate conduct outside of the direct practice of their profession....they all have a moral code, Nurses who are charged with DUI for instance can be disciplined by their BON even if their conduct had nothing to do with patient care. In order for teachers to be considered professionals, I believe they should be held to the same standards as professionals. Also in many states teachers are protected from civil/criminal charges when enforcing disciplinary measures (corporal punishment). They are not even held to the same standards as parents. In my state for instance, a teacher may administer corporal punishment and injur my child (including broken bones, black and blue bruises ect.) and there is NOTHING legally that can be done, they will not lose their license, they will not lose their job, they will not be charged with a crime, and they are protected legally from a civil suit. If I were to do the same thing to my child I would be placed in jail, (rightfully so) but teachers are not even held to minimal standards of conduct expected of any other sector of the population.

Anne said...

I like the idea of creating a board to review teachers and teaching practices. Public schools are the only place I am aware of that people are tenured and therefore almost impossible to fire. I have seen too many teachers who are only putting in the hours and not the effort needed in order to teach well. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, etc who stop putting in effort are soon either fired, or lose their clients. I do like the idea of tenure though because it does protect teachers from being fired when they take risks in the classroom, but I think too many teachers abuse their tenure. We need something that will keep teachers on their toes, constantly challenging themselves and their students.