Reframing Teachers as Intellectuals

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When I was six years old, I proudly announced to my parents that I wanted to be a teacher. My father kindly responded, “That’s nice, dolly, but you need to be something that realizes your full potential.”  Though my enthusiasm for education never diminished, neither did Dad’s various iterations of the message above: yes, teaching is a noble profession, a respectable profession, a necessary profession…but not a profession for you, dolly. You can do better.

I love my Dad. He’s an amazing father, and one of the most creative and ethical people I know. But he is also a pragmatist. Like many immigrant men and women who experienced economic and social hardship, Dad wanted his children to attain higher levels of financial security and professional prestige than he had. And he was well aware that in the United States, a teaching career assured neither. Although we’ve certainly argued about it over the years, I don’t fault Dad for his preferences, given the extent to which the surrounding culture reflects and reinforces this attitude. Education, while a top priority in our home, was a means, not an end. Unless of course you were going to be a university professor –to be a scholar, an intellectual, was a worthy aspiration. A schoolteacher, however? Not so much.

This pervasive attitude, even when held by well-intentioned people, is damaging to our education system. It discourages potentially fantastic educators from entering the field, and diminishes respect for those who have committed their lives to teaching.  It also leads to a lot of mixed messages about teachers’ value in society.  On one hand, we pay a lot of lip service to the power of a single teacher to change lives – there’s a whole genre of films perpetuating this image. Politicians speak of teachers as the keepers of the awesome responsibility of educating future generations. On the other hand, we see policies that seek to reward and punish teachers by boiling down their work to students’ ability to answer questions rather than to solve problems. We see low standards of entry relative to other professions, and low compensation proportional to the intensity of time and effort involved in the job. We have alternative credentialing programs that minimize training periods, perpetuating the myth that teaching doesn’t require substantial preparation.

These conditions beg the question, “Why is there such a weak association between intellectual pursuit and the teaching profession in the first place?” The changing context of formal schooling in the U.S. offers some clues. The history of teaching includes the feminization of education and the related phenomenon of the low prestige associated with working with children. Teachers’ unions grew out of a need to assert an economic and political voice in a patriarchal system that disenfranchised them. While unions made important strides in terms of employee protections, teaching continues to be regulated by a combination of government officials, educators, and district leaders, many of whom lack a background in education.  Furthermore, we are still haunted by the Industrial Age relic of the factory model of education which frames teachers primarily as automatons engaged in a one-way flow of information from adult to child, a “banking” system of learning where knowledge is deposited in a passive recipient to be withdrawn in the future. Implicit in these dynamics is a belief that teachers are not competent enough to manage their own activities, nor astute enough to speak authoritatively about the multifaceted nature of their jobs. This leads to a reality in which teacher knowledge and experience is often marginalized when it comes to determining educational standards.

In a recent Op-ed on the topic of teacher education, Professor Mike Rose of UCLA explored our tendency to overlook the complex cognitive, social, emotional environments in which teachers operate, positing that “teaching done well is complex intellectual work” that involves both extensive multi-disciplinary knowledge as well as the capacity to apply that knowledge. His ensuing discussion of teacher education reform centralizes an appreciation for this complexity. I’d like to build on this train of thought and imagine how things might be different if we start from the premise that teaching is an intellectually demanding job. Here are a few overlapping and interrelated possibilities:

Aspiring educators and those who influence them would consider teaching a more viable option. Much has been written about how countries like Finland have highly selective processes for becoming a teacher, resulting in both a deeper respect for teachers as the “best and the brightest,” as well as a better distribution of qualified teachers across the school system. The influential cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget believed that teaching was not seen as equal in “the scale of intellectual values” to other professions because it is not seen as technically or creatively special. Consequently, the opinions of practitioners are less likely to be taken seriously when it comes to claims of expertise. In contrast, those who attain entrance to their profession through a rigorous process are more likely to be seen as capable of setting standards and determining best practices. It follows that if teachers had to undergo a more rigorous training process, their participation in reform efforts would hold more credibility. Teachers’ opinions would hold more persuasive power. Becoming and staying a teacher, therefore, would mean you have a real shot at being able to influence the direction of your field.

Teacher training would change. A commitment to cultivating the teacher-as-intellectual would have profound implications for how schools of education operate. If we expect schools to produce critical, reflective thinkers, shouldn’t we expect teachers to embody and model critical habits of mind as instructional and community leaders? If we prioritized and valued teachers’ ability to think critically, pre-service teachers would engage more frequently with issues that compel individuals to unpack and question their assumptions about the dynamics of education and the purposes of schooling. Coursework in areas like research methods, comparative education, and education history would allow people to participate more fully in conversations about power and privilege and the politics of education (conversations typically reserved for “academics”). As a consequence, programs would better balance the need for experiential learning with the space to develop these skills and reflect on these deeper issues. This may involve lengthening the duration of training to better accommodate the development of practice that is informed by, rather than disconnected from, theoretical perspectives. To ensure that a lengthened training period does not discourage low-income candidates, universities and the government should invest significantly in subsidizing teacher education.

Research would better take into account the realities of the classroom. Though often drawn from the same population, the distance between educators and education researchers reflects an assumption that the former don’t possess the intellectual sophistication of latter. Teachers need to be positioned as scholars who are part of the academic body, rather than peripheral to it. While there is certainly research on a broad range of topics relevant to the school day, few studies are constructed with significant teacher input. Preparing teachers to participate fully in the process would increase the extent to which “on the ground” concerns are accounted for in rigorous academic research; their words would carry the formidable integrity of both experiential and theoretical expertise. Essentially, teachers would be seen to possess a solid foundation from which to critique and contribute to the educational body of knowledge.

These broad recommendations – higher standards for entry into the profession, increased engagement with intellectual discourse in education, a longer training period – are not new. My purpose here is to propose that the conversation should not focus on how to make teachers “better”, but on how to scaffold teaching as an intellectual profession that empowers and legitimizes teachers’ voices.

Of course, the prospect for teacher expertise to carry greater formative weight must be balanced by the need to honor the assets and input of the communities they serve. How to achieve this balance, however, is a whole other conversation…

What do you think? What other possibilities would a widespread shift such as the one described here engender in our school systems? At the same time, what kind of challenges could arise from it?

– Talia Stol

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