Jay Dubya describes the main obstacles that exist in the American public school authority structure that inhibit and stifle teacher professionalism. Among the leading elements contributing to teacher "unprofessionalism" are: unprofessional duty assignments; uprofessional salaries; subordination to administrators and boards of education; lack of teacher autonomy; working in an obsolete educational model designed after the hundred year old factory-manufacturing models of the early Industrial Revolution. This article was originally written for Jay Dubya's hometown newspaper, The Hammonton (New Jersey) Gazette.
“There Is More To Being A Teacher Than You Think”
Teachers are supposed to be dedicated individuals, devoted to giving more than they receive. Teaching is an unsung “profession.” “Public servants” are expected to go the extra yard, tutor “students” after school to prep them to pass standardized tests, and “voluntarily” agree to do other activities like chaperone a school dance, organize a school assembly, give an in-school workshop or plan and moderate a spelling bee for gratis.
Twenty-eight times during my teaching career I accompanied eighth grade classes to Washington DC, to Williamsburg and to Luray Caverns, Virginia working two eighteen hour days without receiving any additional remuneration. These “professional” extras come with the territory.
Teachers are expected to go above and beyond the call of duty. That means beyond the “unprofessional” responsibilities of cafeteria duty, early morning duty, office detention duty and monitoring the halls and bathrooms between classes duty. In education, “duty” means teacher exploitation by administrations and boards of education. “Duties” have little or nothing to do with education, and they are things that aides or parent’ volunteers could easily perform with little on-the-job training. Duties require little professional ability, and they are a major factor in keeping today’s teachers unprofessional and subordinate to administrative fiat.
Faculty members must set good examples for the students by demonstrating the spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of the school and the betterment of the community. Administrators always emphasize to teachers, “Doing extra is part of your professional responsibility,” they lecture at faculty meetings. “Now we still need three more teachers to volunteer for the Six-Flags’ Great Adventure’ trip. You’ll be getting back at eight p.m. Friday night. That’s not too bad. And we need another volunteer for the after school volleyball program and two more chaperones for the Halloween Dance.”
First of all, let’s get the record straight. Teachers are not professional people. They are school employees who are usually only told by administrators that they are professional when something extra or something unprofessional (a duty) needs to be done. Public School instructors follow administrative orders just like janitors, school secretaries, cafeteria workers and aides do. Faculty members have little choice in matters when assigned to extra non-paying unprofessional duties or administratively arranged professional expectations (Parent Conference Nights, before and after school boring faculty meetings and grade-level or department meetings, curriculum revision meetings, etc.). Teachers are generally treated like employees and not like they are genuine professional people.
Let’s cut to the chase here. A real professional person like a good doctor or a successful lawyer makes over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. By that economic standard, not even school administrators are professional people. True professional people are autonomous. They answer to their own consciences and to nothing else. They work for themselves is their own medical, law and pharmacy’ practices. They are independent of administrative fiat. They don’t have nor need administrators and supervisors telling them what to do or how to do it. In public schools, teachers must always be above and beyond the call of unprofessional duty.
When teachers openly challenge administrative edicts, they are labeled insubordinate. Someone please explain to me how a true professional person could be insubordinate! Is there a doctor in the house? Are public schools military bases?
What has always staggered me the most about being a teacher is that every citizen in the community happens to think that he or she is an expert on what a teacher does for a living. Everyone thinks he or she is your boss. And when a teacher happens to talk with members of the community, people instinctively know exactly how you must execute your professional life and they fill your ears with precisely what is wrong with public schools. The taxpayer is right because he or she pays the freight for public education.
Teachers are unprofessional because their vital missions are subordinated to school board members, to administrators, to parents and to the court of public opinion (the frugal taxpayers, many who are also parents).
Why don’t the educational “community experts” (taxpayers) prescribe their own medicines, formulate their own pills, file their own legal briefs, defend himself or herself against the IRS, operate on each other, or perform brain surgery on other citizens in the community? I’ll tell you why! It is because true professional people do those services for them. Employees (teachers) must enact what their bosses (administrators) say they should do.
So, the teacher must try to please everyone. It is very difficult to be an independent professional having strong convictions that reflect individuality. A teacher possessing those qualities stands out from everyone else on the faculty if his or her ideas are distinct and contrary to dictatorial administrative directives.
A teacher that is tough on kids and makes them work hard, or one who bluntly answers parental grievances about how he or she handled a “student” in a given situation, is not supposed to vigorously defend himself or herself during a parent requested’ conference. Administrators want teachers to placate hostile parents and concede to their demands. When the boat rocks, the officers up on the bridge (the administrators) feel the most swaying.
The irate parent often comes into the building fuming about something “insensitive” you had said to their “child.” He or she does not want to discuss the “student’s” performance in class or the “student’s” academic progress in school. That parent will magnify one event (let’s say sternly disciplining their offspring) and want the teacher disciplined by the administrators, who often wind-up doing exactly what the petulant parent desires. Some parents are so blinded by philoprogenitiveness that they will attempt to vilify, indict and “fire” a teacher in order to protect the errant behavior their precious son or daughter exhibits in class.
These concerned “parents” and “taxpayers” really don’t care about the 10,000 wonderful things a teacher has done in his career. That teacher is only as good as the last thing he or she has done to upset the “student’ and his or her parent.
The customer (the boss, the parent, the expert taxpayer) is always right, and the teacher is usually wrong if he defends himself too aggressively against the accusations of belligerent parents who appeal their grievances to accommodating school’ administrators.
Administrators are like water; they generally take the path of least resistance. If a conflict arises between a parent and a teacher, the professional person (teacher) must soothe, pacify and satisfy the irate complainer. Administrators are quite aware that teachers are mere employees that can be manipulated or coerced into concession out of fear of job loss, of being punished by teaching different and unfamiliar subjects, or fear of having salary increments withheld because of insubordination.
I don’t believe or think that real professionals have to worry about losing their employment or their salary increments. This is another reason why teachers are not bona fide professionals. Do doctors or lawyers have to worry about being insubordinate? Teachers are indoctrinated by school authorities that administrative orders must be obeyed and that friction with bad-tempered parents must be avoided for the sake of school tranquillity and community harmony. If any faculty member fails to follow management’s mandates, then they are acting unprofessionally.
Does authentic academic freedom exist today in public schools? I don’t think so. That evasive reality will not happen until teachers become true professionals, not in terms of professional incomes, but in terms of professional autonomy. They must escape the obsolete factory-manufacturing model of nineteenth century factory management- (administrators) employee- (teachers) product- (students) mentality that has dominated public school education for the past hundred years since the introduction of the Industrial Revolution. That archaic “factory’ business model” must be dismantled, redesigned and renovated. Teachers need more voice and power in school management to ascend to the distinction of professional persons.
How can the public assist in making teachers feel as if they are appreciated professionals? That’s easy. Respect what teachers do in the classroom. Don’t base your opinion of a teacher on one unfavorable incident and ignore five hundred positive experiences a particular child had in an instructor’s classroom.
Teachers have bad days, too. Parents should not treat classroom educators as if they are their employees because teachers happen to pay taxes just like regular property owners do. And finally, taxpayers and parents should not act like they know more about education than teachers do. The job is not half as easy as the public thinks.
Jay Dubya: author of 41 books