The teaching profession | Chalkboard Project

The teaching profession

Tuesday, May 21, 2013 Shawn Daley

Rachel Fortgang is a former student of Shawn's, and a current student teacher.

Harvard University professor Jal Mehta recently penned an editorial for the New York Times in which he argues, essentially, “American education is a failed profession.” His contention rests on the falsity of most reform propositions, that whether we are asked to take sides in the Michelle Rhee vs. Diane Ravitch debate, or whether we follow Waiting for Superman into a charter vs. public contest, we are operating in a place that will not lead to long-term, effective solutions. Interestingly, Mehta reasons that the major solution rests in the professionalization of the teaching profession, something that has been promulgated in books like Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan’s Professional Capital but has remained an elusive position for teacher leadership and reform advocates alike.

Rachel, who is finishing up her student teaching, has noticed the relatively strange position of teachers since she decided to join their ranks. Both highly educated and a veteran of programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, Rachel is one of those that the profession should be trying to attract. Yet, her initial foray has introduced a distinct conundrum. She notes:

“It’s been strange telling my friends, most of whom at this point are finishing up law school, med school, or writing for prestigious news outlets, that I am going to be a teacher. There is, I think, an unspoken disappointment that this is what I ‘have come to,’ that if I cannot be a famous writer, I will resort to standing in front of a classroom intoning the difference between a metaphor and a simile for a group of adolescents who may not care less, year after year, for the rest of my life. What I’ve been coming up against, as I just dip my toe into this profession, is the largely unspoken reality about American society’s perception of the amount of  skill, or to put it more bluntly, the intelligence, that is required to be an effective teacher.”

Part of Rachel’s issue is the fact that the teaching profession occupies a strange zone within the range of professions. In Shawn’s Issues and Ethics in Education class, he often muses about “what collar” a teacher wears. Rooms are often divided between those who argue blue and those who argue white, although the final denouement usually finds the class realizing that it is neither. The teaching profession straddles a line between these two worlds, and as long as it does so, it will perpetually face the labor strife that accompanies working class positions while seeking the protections normally associated with other career fields. Mehta suggests that teachers have to work harder to have teaching be seen as a “profession on par with fields like law and medicine.”

For many readers, this may seem laughable, but we both know, effective teaching requires a skill set that few develop in earnest (which, we believe, is why teaching turnover is so high). Planning a quality, engaging unit requires foresight about how much students can absorb in lesson. Running a decent classroom discussion requires one’s brain to be operating on several different pathways at once: trying to follow the thread of students’ sometimes clouded reasoning, keeping track of who has not yet contributed, rephrasing questions six different ways until they strike the right chord and stopping disruptions before they start. Having the aptitude to decipher when is the right moment to challenge an ambitious adolescent and when is the precise time to encourage a flailing teenager is crucial. An effective teacher has these facilities—and they require a precise combination of psychological, emotional, and analytical intelligence.

Mehta opines that in order to fix this, we need “money, political will, and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on par with fields like law and medicine.” That’s pretty grand of Dr. Mehta, and while it may be spot on, its odds of happening here in Oregon are slim. Yet, maybe the recent (belabored) PERS reform that just passed gives us an opportunity to start from ground zero, and maybe, with the right imagination from teacher leadership, we can start the process of transforming the profession.

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