This is a question that has vexed teachers for as long as there have been teachers. Personally, I like the historical description offered by Howard Gardiner in an opinion piece in the New York Times: "A cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner." Though this describes teachers, American culture doesn’t always give us the degree of “status” and “comfortable livelihood” that we deserve.
Before the invention of schools, teachers were certainly not considered professionals. They occupied a nether region that required them to be educated but placed them at the mercy of rich parents for their economic sustenance. Stephen Greenblatt, in his book on the Renaissance, Swerve, describes the vocational travails of the humanist at the center of his account about the discovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts as he agonizes over how to earn a living, describing the teaching option available, tutoring rich children, as "servitude." While the modern American school culture has certainly improved matters to the point where we don’t consider ourselves slaves, it hasn't yet offered us the respect afforded to other professional occupations. The exception might be college professors, but in many cases professors don't want to be considered teachers, preferring the more honored and respectable role of academician.
So why aren't we truly considered professionals by the public at large? Perhaps it is as simple as the belief that teaching is a job most non-teachers think anyone can do. They believe this, I think, because everyone has gone to school themselves and has been the beneficiary of talented, experienced, hard-working teachers who made it look easy–so naturally, they think it is easy, a point of view that is reflected in the common expression, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Unsurprisingly teaching consequently doesn't have much status in the public mind.
Yet those who have actually faced a classroom of students (especially of public school students) know that teaching is a challenging, difficult proposition that is only becoming more challenging and difficult as time goes on. Thankfully, enough brave souls, inspired by more subtle rewards such as public service and the satisfactions inherent in those magical moments when students finally learn a complex ideas, stick with it and devote their lives to teaching.
Unfortunately, many of the most talented don't last. Some simply move on to other career options, seeking either more status, more pay, or both. Many, however, leave the classroom for the same reasons, but stay in education. They become policy makers of one sort or another, going into administration, writing books and becoming education gurus, or taking positions at universities. This loss is crippling to our professional status, because these tend to be the voices of education, from whom the public usually hears on educational issues. Since it is usually not the voices of practicing classroom teachers that informs the public, is it any wonder that teachers have lower status?
I’m convinced that establishing a career ladder in the classroom is one key to increasing the status of teachers. The other is changing the perception the public has of the organizations that teachers currently choose to represent them.
Like it or not, most people consider unions to be tools for blue collar workers to fight for job rights. The fact that nearly every teacher in America belongs to a union may grant us some economic clout, but it damages our prestige with the public. When I began my career, the National Education Association was a professional organization, not a union. It lobbied on behalf of teachers, administrators, and education in general, and worked to improve our profession. Though it never had their clout, it was modeled after other professional organizations like the American Bar Associations and the American Medical Association. We need to find a way to get back to the public seeing teacher organizations as professional in nature. Like the ABA and AMA, which have been much more effective at increasing the pay of their members, we need to find a more effective path to increasing teacher pay, one that pushes the salary efforts onto a different plane.
A good start for career ladders and a great place for a professional organization to work on improving teacher prestige is to push for policies that reward teachers who stay in the classroom as they gain experience and become more professionally prepared.
Currently, it is accepted practice virtually everywhere, to place first year teachers, fresh out of college with a year of student teaching, directly into classrooms. For nearly all of us–rookies to veterans–the door closes and we are left to fend for ourselves, practicing our craft in virtual isolation. Most of us learn: often by asking for help, occasionally when given the all too rare opportunity to observe a more experienced teacher. The fuss going on all over the country lately about evaluation policies and how to deal with ineffective teachers reflects the reality that, because teachers work largely in isolation, we find it difficult to have meaningful discussions about how best to improve classroom instruction. This system leaves far too much to chance in the professional improvement of teachers.
To make it worthwhile for accomplished teachers to remain in the classroom, we will have to abandon the long-standing tenet that all teachers with the same experience get paid the same. Using professional teaching standards, either current versions or ones that may be fashioned in the future, we need to establish gradations of "master" teachers who have demonstrated mastery of exacting models of excellence. Then we need to create new classroom models that give these masters expanded duties for designing and monitoring instruction, placing them at the head of teams of teachers with fewer qualifications. We need to pay these masters salaries that will keep them as practicing classroom professionals rather than seeking higher pay as administrators. We also need to develop processes where they become part of the decision making process, turning to them for answers about how best to help students learn.
I recently read about Gary Rubinstein, who teaches at the Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He is a Teach for America alumni who twenty-two years later is still practicing his craft, which makes him a model for me of the kinds of teachers we need to encourage with better professional organizations and a classroom career ladder. Of course he supplements his classroom work by writing a blog, has created the organization Teach for Us (which works to provide means for teachers to connect across America), and has written books, all of which points to the fact that teaching, as it is currently practiced, doesn’t recognize talented teachers well enough nor does it give enough outlet for them to extend their professional reach. But he is still grounded in a classroom, and that sets him apart.
It is past time to give teachers like Rubinstein the prestige that goes with the recognition of being a professional, along with at least some of the status that other professionals in our culture receive. Let's make teacher associations truly professional organizations that work with policy makers to widen quality instruction as well as improving economic benefits for teachers. And let's identify the best among us and put them at the head of the class. Let's put them in charge of teacher teams, give them more input on policy decisions, more prestige, and more pay. Let's keep them in the classroom, like Gary Rubinstein, where they can make the biggest difference.