Going Pro in Education

Flashback to a week ago: I have embarked on a (modest) quest to save update education in America. I went online in search of articles written by those more intelligent than myself and did not have any difficulty finding such information. This past September, the New England Journal of Public Policy, published by the University of Massachusetts, devoted an entire issue to the topic of education. All of the articles had to use the “2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores as a starting point and address the obstacles to education reform.” The site allows people to download the articles, and so I did.

I’ve read four of the articles thus far, covering a wide range of aspects of U.S. education. In my next few posts, I’d like to offer some commentary, thoughts, opinions, and conclusions I’ve drawn from my readings, as part of my quest to answer my own questions. (Sorry about the “questing” motif; I may be listening to the instrumental music from Lord of the Rings right now.)

Going Pro

I always considered teaching to be a profession. I entered the classroom with that mindset after graduating from the ProTeach program at the University of Florida. I held myself to professional standards, but I also realized there were fundamental differences between the environment and system in which I worked as compared to those of other professions, namely doctors and lawyers.

Ronald Thorpe, the President of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, begins his article entitled “Sustaining the Teaching Profession” by asking, “Is Teaching a Profession?” I think many educators would agree with me in saying I behaved as a professional, but in many ways was not treated as a professional. Thorpe argues convincingly that such conflict arises from the sad-but-true fact that teaching is not a true profession right now.

Why not? Some of Thorpe’s reasons echoed questions I’ve pondered before. For instance, does our lack of political and systematic influence stem from the roots of our fore-teachers? Think about it. Those who stood in front of the K-12 chalkboard were single women and spinsters; later, they were educated women who faced three career options if they wanted to work. I don’t think anyone would argue those women were in a position of power. Have teachers gained any power since those days? Thorpe writes, “we are talking about a workforce, unlike that of any other profession, that is made up mostly of middle-class women who take care of children.” It is unclear whether he means our students or our own children, but the point is nearly moot as most teachers are doing both.

Thorpe follows this consideration of gender with another painfully on-point point: “Furthermore, teachers do work that most people think anyone can do.” That’s the damn truth. It’s like when I first became a stay-at-home mom and my husband wondered why I couldn’t keep up with the dishes. Walk the walk, man, and you’ll find out. (He did. We’re still happily married.)

This belief that anyone can be a teacher is perpetuated by the fact that in many places, anyone can be a teacher. As an educator from Florida, I’m well-aware that someone can be hired for a teaching position and given three years to obtain their certification. If you have 25 high school students in six classes a day for three years, that equals 450 students. That number again is 450 students being taught by someone who is not fully trained to be a teacher. Hurts your brain, doesn’t it?

Here’s one of Thorpe’s main points and strongest opinions:

“Every profession has a culture that is shaped by a shared experience that in turn is defined by the profession’s standards and expectations. The experience must be universal, and everyone must travel the same path into and through the profession. Teachers complain that they do not receive the respect they deserve, but respect seldom comes from asking for it. It is hard-earned, and it comes not from what one member of the profession does but from what they all do.”

Same path? Universal experience? The part of me that embraces choice feels a little queasy. And yet, there’s an undeniable truth here. We respect other professions because of the high bar they set for themselves. We know them to govern themselves, from college all the way into their careers. We admire those who pass the LSAT and MCAT. We trust their expertise in large part because they’ve proven it to their own colleagues.

In teaching, others set the bars for us. Various levels of governments and politicians have regulated and governed our training, education, requirements for hiring, evaluations, and requirements for firing. Think about all of the things teachers have had impressed upon them from “above” and ask yourself: do doctors have to deal with this shit?

Another article in the journal, written by Florida teacher Catherine Boehme, is entitled “School Reform in Canada and Florida: A Study of Contrast.” It’s a fascinating read, and I plan to use more of Ms. Boehme’s insight in future posts, but for now I want to connect Mr. Thorpe’s comments to the teaching environment in Alberta, Canada, as observed by Ms. Boehme. Here are a few key points:

  • “[In Alberta] There exists a “strict requirement that teachers earn a full teaching certificate before stepping into a classroom as the teacher of record.”
  • “Teachers and school principals in Alberta may not be licensed unless they have completed all certification courses, including 48 credits (semester hours) in pedagogy and at least 24 credits in a particular subject specialty, and at minimum a full, supervised ten-week (250 hour) internship.”
  • “Unlike many states in the United States, including Florida, Alberta offers no alternative routes to a teaching certificate.”
  • Florida now fills 35% of the state’s teaching vacancies with untrained or minimally trained individuals. With about nine thousand teachers leaving the profession each year, the number of poorly qualified individuals filling teacher vacancies in Florida is shocking.”

And finally, a related point raised in an article from the same journal written by Linda Darling-Hammond: “As segregation and school funding disparities grew worse throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of lowering or waiving credentialing standards to fill classrooms in high-minority, low-income schools – a practice that is unheard of in high-achieving nations and in other professions – became commonplace in many U.S. states, especially those with large minority and immigrant populations, such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York.”

So we face a problem. Teachers are not truly respected because we are not truly seen as experts who can govern ourselves. How else to explain the degree to which others with no experience in education profess to know what’s best? And if complaining and protesting were enough, wouldn’t we have seen a difference by now?

Why doesn’t our word carry weight?

Our collective word must come from our collective expertise. To establish unquestionable, undeniable expertise – the kind that makes classroom teachers an actual force with which to be reckoned – we must join together to create, support, and advocate for a professional path to becoming a teacher. This challenge can only be taken up by educators if it is to be a defining moment for teaching as a profession.

In his article, Thorpe says, “Professions are more like Michaelangelo’s figures waiting to be released from a great hulk of stone.” For decades, everyone else has been chipping away at educators. It is long past due that teachers define the image of the profession themselves and from within their own ranks.

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