Teaching as an Occupation

There is something peculiar about the notion that teaching is an occupation. Everybody does it: every parent and every employer tries to be calm while explaining to a child or a worker what it is they aren’t doing quite properly or how to do a task better. If explanation is provided with patience, then children and workers are likely to have a more positive attitude towards their tasks—though, on the other hand, if a lesson is reinforced with a spanking or a dressing down, then children and employees are likely to learn how important it is they learn their lesson well. Teachers are similarly divided between those who think that sticks or carrots, whether in the forms of grades, or informal praise and criticism, are the ways to advance student learning. Presumably, and contrary to the teacher unions, anyone of good will and patience and an education a little bit superior to that of their students, could be a teacher.


Schools, however, are regularized, large scale organizational operations which are required to shepherd a goodly number of students through the day and through their lessons. It employs a goodly number of teachers to do so, and needs a stable labor force so that there will be an institutional memory of practices and procedures that are appropriate to any school setting—how to organize class schedules, fire drills, graduation exercises—and appropriate in a particular setting—what kinds of books, lesson plans, disciplinary practices, work with one student body but not another.


Moreover, if people are going to be teachers for a long period of time, then teaching has to be organized as a career: there are pay differentials at least for seniority; standards for admission to the occupation and other forms of occupational training; regularized working conditions; and so on. That is very different from what would be the case if teachers were, let us say, a temporary age graded occupation pursued by those just out of college and those retired from their major careers or if it were broken up into separate occupations only some of which were pursued by “lifers”. Teaching might be like the military, where only a part of the enlisted personnel are expected to “re-up” or like housewifery, which may or may not be pursued as a full time activity.  


The greatest of teachers—Socrates, Jesus—may have been amateurs, and well into the Eighteenth Century teachers may have been people who had some education who set themselves up in this business for lack of other employment for their skills. That was the case with English and American clergymen. Samuel Johnson may have been the last renowned member of this particular species (exclusive of the fictional Ichabod Crane). The Nineteenth Century brought the origin of the professional schoolman: Dr. Arnold, who tried to rescue Rugby from its boys; Dr. Mann of Massachusetts, who tried to think through how to organize a system of public education. Charles Dickens was no friend of professional schoolmen because, like many people who have worked too hard to arrive at a respectable standing in life, schoolmen are prone to lack an imagination of anything other than the prurient. Look at his Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times and Charley Hexam in Our Mutual Friend.


Teachers are still going through the evolution to becoming real employees, not just virginal women and spinsters who can be given this work until they settle down and marry, nor men who have washed out, perhaps out of no fault of their own, from other, more competitive ways of life. That means, of course, that teachers need to become—or, more accurately, are still in the process of becoming--accountable for what it is they do, and being certified, as are doctors and plumbers, as possessed of the relevant skills for performing their activities, both of these processes still resisted by those who lead organized groups of teachers for the very understandable reason that people who have become employees will act like employees, and because it still remains difficult to ascertain on a scientific basis what it is teachers need to know to be good or even merely acceptable teachers.


The aim of teachers gets displaced from simply being teachers to being employees who do teaching. That makes all the difference in the world, which is what all employers find when they realize employees will craft their work to be what will get them more money and advancement rather than what will do the company the most good. The resistance of teachers to usual conditions of employment comes about because teachers have become only so lately recruited and organized themselves into the ranks of the employed after entrance into other occupations has already been codified into work, whether that means the steel worker has been unionized or that stringent standards for becoming a professional physician have been authorized by professional agencies who have been delegated to this task by government.


At the present moment, students in most schools are supervised for the day and led in tasks that are supposed to be educating by teachers who are certified or all but certified for this work. People are not considered capable of managing classrooms of students or providing proper instruction unless they themselves have been given an education to do so, even though there are others in the population, not trained as teachers, who are proficient in the subject matters that are to be taught, and even though the task of supervising the young is for the most part done by parents, who don’t have to be certified at anything at all.  


The prevailing view is that teachers have to know how to teach, not just what to teach, and so teaching becomes like other occupations, in that there are special skills and knowledge associated with it, rather than being something any person can do for that other person, or something that people with a knack for explaining things can do better than others, regardless of their training or their proficiency in their subject matters. Moreover, the ability to control groups of students, rather than merely one’s own children who are perhaps in the company of a neighbor’s children, is also regarded as something that needs to be taught, rather than something that grows quickly with experience for those people who have a knack for and a love for being with children.


That presumption, that both the ability to mind children and the ability to explain things need to be taught, may be warranted. Teachers are recruited from the lower third of their college classes, and so may need more instruction than other college graduates in getting their thoughts organized or laying them out clearly, and all college graduates need at least some templates for how to organize their classes-- to motivate students and to control disturbances and distractions-- so that they can get on with the lessons. Moreover, some classroom instruction designed to motivate a teacher to look at his or her charges in terms of how to manage them may help dispel the customary practices that teachers may use if they have nothing to draw on for models but the ways in which order was maintained within their families. Corporal punishment can lead to legal trouble and a lot of yelling can lead to a badly managed school. So teacher education may be a good idea considering the human materials teacher certification programs deal with.


It is easy enough to make the contrary case, however. Certification makes sense only if you know what it is that teachers need to know in order to be good teachers: the right way to present lessons; the right way to construct student projects; the right way to project interest in student growth; the right way to control a class. But there are many ways of doing each of these things. It is not necessary that students all be exposed to some single best method of teacher practice if, in fact, there is not a single best practice, but only the kinds of practices that a variety of different kinds of personalities with a variety of different intellectual skills arrive at as the way they sense they make an impact on students. Elementary school teachers who are not very good at teaching math but very good at putting on pageants or teaching poetry would probably be better off spending more time doing what they are good at than trying to make up for what they had done poorly the previous day. It is up to the school to figure out ways to compensate for the relative strengths of one teacher or another by exposing children to a variety of teachers with different strengths.


Moreover, a case can be made that students benefit from seeing a variety of teaching styles and strengths. They are exposed to different ways of thinking. If the student is a strong student, then the student may be able to benefit from the variety, and even if the student is a weak student, the student may be able to sort through a variety of teaching styles until the student finds one that is most congruent with the way the student’s own mind operates, and so legitimize for the student the way he or she thinks. That, perhaps, can be considered a maximal rather than a minimal goal of an education: that the way a person thinks through problems is a way to think through problems, so long as it gets refined so that it meets certain objective performance standards.


Experienced teachers are not necessarily better teachers. They may just be teachers who have not been very good at their jobs for a long time. Some studies suggest that people who have two years of experience are no worse at being teachers than people with considerably greater teaching experience. Yes, some teachers may continue to grow and hone their skills, but that does not seem to be the major pattern. Moreover, since studies also show that teachers tend to burn out after five years or so, a case can be made for maximizing those most productive three years by recruiting very able young people to join teaching as a temporary occupation that is pursued for a while before the young people turn to their “adult” and “permanent” careers. That is the idea behind programs like “Teaching for America”.


A similar idea is the recruitment of teachers who have already tried other occupations and who are dropped into teaching after only a summer’s preparation. Good motivation and proven abilities at something or other can compensate for lack of experience. Chancellor’s Scholars in New York City, who are recruited in this way, are no more likely to drop out after a year of teaching than teachers who have passed through a usual certification program. The quality of the teacher may be more important than the quality of the training.


That last thought is congruent with what might be the case in other occupations. Scholars of the early industrial system may think that peasants just in from the countryside had to adjust themselves to the mindless routine of the factory. But it may also be the case that the factory had to be designed to expect no more of employees than mindless diligence because that is all that could be reliably expected of employees new to the ways of the city, who had to be disciplined while on the job, even if they spent the money they earned on drink to drive away the thought that they would have to return to the factory before too long for another day of drudgery. Similarly, schools are largely organized to accommodate the actual abilities of teachers rather than what might be hoped to be their abilities. Schools have to use more workbooks, set lesson plans, curricula devised by experts outside the school, because the teachers they employ are not well enough educated to devise lessons or classroom routines of their own.


The bureaucratization of schooling that results from having to design slots teachers can fit into has other adverse consequences. Max Weber thought that a system of delegated offices as that is created within a bureaucracy, where doing what that position is designed to do leads to advancement, is a pretty good way to get employees serving the needs of the company rather than themselves. Subsequent sociologists have shown how easily that design gets thwarted, how good employees are at jumping at doing what is good for them but not the company. They produce the numbers they will be measured against rather than the accomplishments those numbers are supposed to measure. In education, that is what happens in standardized testing. Teachers reproduce the lesson plans and the rote activities they have mastered rather than the emphasis on creative teaching opportunities that their own education professors encouraged but may well have not modeled. They search for advancement to get out of the classroom or for job security so that they cannot be forced out of the classroom. In other words, they act like employees, neither possessed of a professional calling nor yet so alienated that they do not wish to give the appearance of doing a day’s work.


Teacher organizations portray their members as people who are or are trying to be professionals. That claim is largely rhetorical, a way to claim higher salaries. Professionals require considerably more talent and training than is required for teachers. Professionals have responsibility for matters, such as a jail term or a surgery, which can change the course of a client’s life, while whether a teacher has, in fact, contributed much to a student’s life can only be evaluated accurately by that student in remote retrospect. Moreover, professional occupations are a way of life in which the job is more engaging than other aspects of life, such as family and recreation, and where there are organizational supports for treating it that way. Medical students don’t have to leave the hospital where they learn and work to find food and dates. Teachers, on the other hand, are more middle class. They try to balance off family and work; they live on middle class incomes; they know themselves to have less prestige than professionals.


The emphasis on professionalization is actually an attempt to make teaching a full fledged middle class occupation rather than a working class occupation.  The unionization of teachers was inspired by the same motives that lead to the unionization of any other occupation: higher salaries, job security, and abolishing all those indignities that reminded teachers that they were merely temporary employees or were only providing supplemental incomes for their families rather than people who were pursuing a lifelong career. The teacher corps had been, at best, treated as part of the working class. They had to clock in and out; they were not paid for duties other than classroom coverage that were assigned to them; assignments to tasks with additional remuneration were made at the sufferance of administrators. Their private lives were subject to the overview of their employers.


The call for teaching to become a profession was therefore a call for teaching to become a middle class occupation, a suitable avenue of upward mobility for the children of immigrants and those others pulling themselves up out of the working class so that they could go to work in coats and ties or dresses and keep their hands clean and express their greater and growing knowledge of how the world works to children who knew relatively little about it.


Teachers are by and large most accurately described neither as professionals nor as working class, but as paraprofessionals. That is a description of a type of occupation that has only arisen in the past thirty years to describe physician extenders, paralegals, and other auxiliaries of the professions. The term can be more largely construed to apply to all of those occupations that supply knowledge based services to a client list. They are usually better educated, better paid, and less alienated in their work than white collar workers, and less educated, less well paid, and less engrossed in their work than professionals. They deal with important but not life-threatening issues. This social class includes social workers, engineers, architects, nurses, Certified Public Accountants, as well as occupational and physical therapists. It also includes teachers, because they too take on a caseload (a classroom of students, or a set of classes with shifting bodies of students) for the course of a term, and provide services those students that include instruction, advising, and assessment. This is not a life and death matter, but it does presumably impact on the kind of person a student will become. Teachers are to be distinguished from professors, who are indeed professionals, in that professors “profess”-- speak the truth as they understand it-- while the main responsibility of teachers is to pass on what has been developed by others in a way that is palatable and meaningful and within the grasp of the students they instruct. Professors focus on truth, which in some times and places is a life and death matter. Teachers, for their part, focus on their students, bringing each of them along as best they can. Professors are to be found in research universities, while teachers are to be found everywhere else in education: elementary and secondary schools, community colleges, and in most non-elite colleges.


Teachers wish the recognition and salary and degree of control over their own work characteristic of paraprofessionals, rather than the much greater salaries and more onerous responsibilities characteristic of professionals. They compare their salaries to those of people in uniformed services and white collar jobs, not to doctors and lawyers. Teachers, by and large, do not want responsibility for the budgets in their schools or being quizzed or held accountable on a daily basis, as doctors and lawyers are, for how knowledgeable and how quick thinking they are. What teachers want to avoid even more, however, is to be simply service workers, which are people who do tasks virtually any person could do if required to. They do not want to become mere babysitters for their charges, seeing to it that the students do not get into too much trouble while their parents are at work. In that case, teachers would be workers in a daycare facility, more like prison guards or nursing home attendants than like professors. If teachers were merely service workers, then education is something thrown in to keep students distracted until it is time for them to go home.

The danger of becoming service workers impacts not only on the salary prospects of teachers. It affects their sense of what they are doing with their lives, what prestige and working conditions they deserve. So it is no wonder that teachers see themselves as having special skills that set them apart from service workers and which jump them over the white collar class into the paraprofessional class. If teachers were hall monitors rather than educators, then the meaning of their claims would be very different. They would be like members of police unions, keeping how they do their jobs to themselves or holding out the unruliness of those in their charge only so that they can bargain for more salary to put up with their jobs.