Those Who Can't, Teach.

There is a certain amount of righteous indignation that comes with working in education. Teachers and other youth workers in schools frequently feel maligned and are very sensitive to the public perception that they don’t do that much and they are far whinier than they are worth. So naturally when I was asked recently whether teaching is a legitimate profession my knee-jerk reaction was to sputter “Well of course it is!” But reflecting upon this question has led to some uncertainty about my answer and even the substance of the initial query.

I ended up doing way more reading than I intended to do and landed on this, an excerpt from the book “Thinking About Teaching: An Introduction”. Robert Runté examines the two sociological theories underpinning the idea of a “profession”: trait theory and structural-functionalism. I’ll spare you the gory SOC101 details — neither theory does a very good job of describing what teachers do or defining professions at all for that matter, and it’s because the world is changing. Runté makes the case that the all occupations are becoming deprofessionalized for a variety of reasons. The knowledge base of the general population is rising, thus undermining the information monopoly previously enjoyed by professionals. Occurring along with this is the process of “deskilling”. The rise of automatization and the drive to decrease costs and increase efficiency are a part of deskilling. People who were formerly autonomous professionals are now more likely to be specialized workers within a larger bureaucratic organism.

So maybe the whole question of whether teaching is a profession is a non-question because professions don’t exist. Ironically all of the things that we do to make teaching seem more “professional” seem doomed to accelerate deskilling. Standardized testing increases the likelihood of curriculum-centered rather than child-centered teaching. Policy initiatives like NCLB which measure teacher performance by output decreases reflective and responsive classroom methods tailored to individuals. Top-down central control of schools discourages innovation at the classroom level and diminishes the intrinsic rewards of teaching. chools are assembly lines, students are empty vessels and teachers are detached workers hoping to increase test scores. Pretty bleak, huh?

Well, maybe not that bad just yet. But we’re getting there. Teachers need to be paid more, but I think we’re having a bit of miscommunication about why that should be so. Professional cache shouldn’t define the pay scale, whether or not a teacher is effective should.

We need more discussion about how we train, select, support and evaluate teachers. Teacher training should include a greater proportion of hours spent student-teaching – research on high school teachers has found that those who spent 60 hours or more student-teaching were 45% less likely to leave the profession than those who went through alternative certification routes requiring 30 hours or less. We can’t pay teachers based solely on outcome. Do doctors get paid less when someone dies on the table? There must be multiple measures of performance: credentials, accrued coursework, years of experience, advancing student learning as measured by test scores and added value, supporting students via reflective teaching methods, mentoring new recruits. Teachers should be encouraged to build on their classroom practice and differentiate their curriculum materials to meet the needs of their students. All of this is useless without leadership so there needs to be an increased onus on educational administrators to be instructional leaders. Principals must have the skill and the time to evaluate teachers fairly and accurately; for too long the apparent addition to the expression “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” has been “those who can’t teach, administrate”.

Before we concern ourselves with abstractions such as whether we are seen as professionals maybe we need to attend to the concrete matters of improving the the quality of the work that we do.

  • WestIndianArchie

    “whether or not a teacher is effective should”

    LOL, try getting that republican ideal through to the Teacher’s union.

    How could you measure effectiveness beyond a standardized test?

    What if the 3rd grade teachers measures how good the 2nd grade teacher was?

    “Keisha didn’t learn the difference between nouns and verbs like she was supposed to”

  • You have a variety of options for measuring effectiveness that are testable such as value-added where you’re looking at a change in test scores whether or not a child reaches the passing grade. There has been a push for proficiency testing too which focuses on performance in more naturalistic real- world problems as evidence of learning. Besides all of that if you really want “no child left behind” you would have to embrace the idea of IEP’s (individualized educational plans) for children who need them and not insisting that all children progress at the same pace. It’s not just about the testing, it’s about changing how we look at what we’re trying to achieve in the classroom. When you change your perspective on what constitutes “progress” then the ways we evaluate it change too.

    If getting paid for effective teaching is a republican ideal then is paying for slip-shod teachers is democratic?

    Teachers should be effective. Period. Of course that can’t happen in a vacuum – policy and admin has to be behind them to support that and hold people accountable. I’ve seen great overworked and underpaid teachers and I’ve seen people who are dragging ass and going through the motions everyday. We have to find a happy medium.

  • The problem of measuring the effectiveness of knowledge workers (such as teachers) is one reason we have the concept of professional. If what the worker is doing is straightforward (as with an assembly line worker who has to screw on three pieces as the car goes by on the line) and easily measured, we can rely on managers and objective measures to ensure productivity and effectiveness. But teaching isn’t really like that: though some schools/jurisdictions may aim for an assembly-line-like conformity, the real nature of teaching and learning is necessarily a process with too many contextual and emergent properties to be able to quantify easily. The permutations of children and backgrounds interacting with the curriculum are too diverse to anticipate and regulate. So ultimately, you just have to trust the teacher to do their best and not screw it up too badly. So being unable to regulate the process, the next best thing is to regulate the production of practitioners. So according to sociologists like M.A. Larson, the point of professionalism is to guarantee the quality of the knowledge workers assigned to tasks which cannot be deskilled/objectively measured. So, if we increase the professionalism of teachers (by increasing the length and quality of their training — you mentioned hours of practicum, for example, but university training and testing are also key factors in ensuring quality training — attracting and retaining quality recruits through high levels of pay, resocialization to a professional code of ethics and norms of dedication, neutrality, work ethic, etc etc.) then we set up a situation where we CAN trust teachers to do the job because they are reflective practitioners and capable and motivated to do the job without constant monitoring and managerial direction.

    But unfortunately, we live in an age that values accountability on a business model which often fails to recognize the emergent qualities of what they are attempting to measure (is writing ability just knowing what a noun is, or is it having a sense of one’s own voice, and how would one attempt to quantify the latter?). Instead of granting teachers the autonomy and ownership that would encourage teachers to become reflective practitioners, the trend is towards deskilling teachers by trying to reduce everything to objective measures. So, somewhat ironically, your support for more monitoring of effective teaching actually works against teacher professionalism and in my view, would in the long run imply that public schools no longer educated students, but merely trained them.