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Are teachers professionals?

It seems like a simple question with an obvious answer, but for years teachers have been treated by policymakers as anything but professionals. Their judgments about how to educate and evaluate children are not taken into account, and they are evaluated by measures that statisticians say aren’t valid assessment tools (such as when teachers are evaluated by the standardized test scores of students they don’t have and subjects they don’t teach). Teaching is often deemed “a calling,” which is a way of saying that teachers are born and that teaching doesn’t really require rigorous training beyond knowing the subject being taught.

In this post, educators Todd S. Hawley and Adam W. Jordan answer the question asked in the headline.

Hawley is an associate professor of social studies teacher education and is coordinator of the Curriculum and Instruction Program at Kent State University. Before earning his PhD, he taught high school social studies in Georgia at North Atlanta High School and at Oglethorpe County High School. Hawley can be reached at toddshawley@gmail.com.

Jordan is an assistant professor of special education at the University of North Georgia and was a middle school special education teacher in Madison County, Georgia, and an alternative middle and high school teacher in Chatham County, N.C. His work is focused on understanding equitable alternative school spaces as well as supporting teachers as professionals. He and Hawley produce a monthly education column for the Bitter Southerner titled “Southern Schooling.” He can be emailed at adamwj@gmail.com

This post was first published on the Bitter Southerner, and I have been given permission to post it.

By Adam W. Jordan and Todd S. Hawley

If you are in a hurry, the answer to the question posed by that headline is simply, “Yes.” Please pass it on.

But if you have a little more time, stay with us as we try to do what good teachers do and make what seems to be a superficial question more meaningful.

Imagine taking your W2s, 1099s, and deductible receipts down to the local accountant. As you hand over your mountain of documentation suggesting that you’ve done your part as a tax-paying member of society, imagine asking her about her training as an accountant. Her response: “My degree is in chemistry, but I took a six-week course on accounting once.”

Now, if you are like us, you are imagining yourself politely yanking those documents away, smiling nervously, thanking her for her time, and briskly walking back to your car. Accountants are professionals, after all, and we expect that as professionals they have rigorous preparation, professional judgment, and a collective vision for their profession. We don’t think they obtained those attributes at breakneck pace.

If you are reading this and you are a chemist, don’t be mad at us for not trusting you with our financial well-being. We aren’t going to ask an accountant any questions that pertain to chemistry either. We simply expect professionals to be masters of their own profession, not someone else’s. We also expect that the individuals giving the most input regarding the governing of a profession are members of that profession themselves.

For decades, debate has continued over whether or not teachers are professionals. If you spend a little time simply Googling the phrase, “Are teachers professionals?”, you will see this debate has a long history, with strong-willed proponents on each side.

Today, we would like to extend that debate with our own question, “Why do we feel the need to ask whether teachers are professionals?”

The ongoing debate — whether teachers are professionals or just laborers in a large education-industrial complex — has long been rooted in the policies that drive the educational system. In particular, concern has grown over how teachers are prepared, their collective approach to professional practice, and the idea of long-term professional vision. From our perspective, the question of whether teachers are professionals has been allowed to persist primarily due to one simple truth: Lots of folks who are not teachers have plenty to say about teachers and education.

Don’t get us wrong. The field of education needs support and advocates from all walks of life for the complex ecology of public education to function as a foundation of democracy, but in that advocacy, teachers must be seen as the people who hold the professional knowledge because, well, they’ve earned it. When decisions about how to best educate children are made by people who have never been teachers, then we have a problem — one that leads folks to believe teachers aren’t professionals.

In our current educational context, examples abound. It says a great deal about the current view of teachers as professionals that the president nominated and the Senate approved Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education. DeVos has a great deal of experience shaping the national debate on school choice, but let us be clear: DeVos has never been a teacher. Unlike many who seek to influence the way children are educated in the United States, DeVos never even attended a public school and is the first secretary of education who hasn’t been a public school student or parent.

Being a parent of a student who attends a public school is not enough to make you an expert on how best to educate our children, of course, but it gives you more experience on that score than DeVos. And we can agree that completing a teacher-education program and working as a teacher makes you a professional educator, even when compared to the experience of being a parent. However, we live in a world where politicians, most of whom were never teachers, have control over the standards set for determining teacher quality.

We don’t pretend to know much about the experience of becoming an accountant or a chemist because we are not accountants or chemists. We are teachers. If you take a look at some of the strongest voices in the public debate over education, however, you’ll find lots of folks who aren’t teachers and base their expertise on the fact that they’ve “been to school.”

Well, we’ve ridden in airplanes before, but we aren’t pilots.

So, to return to our original question, let us tell you why we, as teachers, think the answer to whether or not teachers are professionals is so clear and simple.

First, teachers undergo some of the most rigorous preparation practices of any university student. Many folks outside the profession may still hold on to the old ridiculous adage, “Those who can’t, teach,” while holding onto a romantic view of the hard sciences and business.

What those folks don’t realize is that gaining admission to a high-demand program such as education requires a highly competitive GPA and competitive scores on entrance testing. Once students are admitted to a program, they must juggle extensive course work with rigorous school placement experiences. Depending on their state, licensing requires a mountain of standardized assessments. In fact, teacher candidacy is not the end of learning and preparation. Teachers must regularly engage in professional development to renew their credentials.

Second, teachers express strong collective professional judgment. We just don’t always listen to them. For example, take the trend in teacher evaluation. State legislatures keep passing laws that base teacher evaluation on value-added models, or as they are commonly called, “growth models.” Teachers knew from day one that this was a ridiculous idea because they know that these growth models are based only on standardized test scores and solid student evaluation is much more complicated than that.

Teachers know that good standardized measurements designed by knowledgeable psychometricians are vitally important measures. But they also know there is more to teaching than just those standardized test scores. When the American Statistical Association made a statement that value-added models do not “directly measure teacher contributions toward other student outcomes” and that they measure “correlation and not causation,” folks began to listen. But despite the statistical evidence and criticism from teachers, value-added models are still used to evaluate their effectiveness.

Finally, teachers have a collective vision for their profession. This is as clear as the crystal waters of the Etowah River in July. Sit down with a group of teachers. Any teachers. From anywhere. Ask them why they teach, and you will quickly find out that their vision of teaching includes supporting students academically, socially and emotionally — helping them become active, contributing members of society. They contribute to this vision by teaching in transformative ways that empower all students to learn at high levels regardless of ability status, socioeconomic status, or any other categorical variable. Teachers also realize that to realize this vision, they must regularly adapt. And they do. They take the latest mandates that are placed upon them, they roll up their sleeves, and they innovate. If you question that, just go visit your local school. Go spend a day with a teacher.

You may feel that this month’s column is a rant from a couple of teachers who are tired of seeing their profession diminished in popular culture, as well as by state legislatures and the federal government. We do appreciate a good rant, but our intent is deeper. We hope that by making the case that teachers are indeed professionals, then we can move on to a harder question: Why aren’t they always treated as such?

All over this country, teachers need you to listen to their hard-earned professional judgment. This might be more crucial here in the South, where teachers’ unions are nonexistent and right-leaning legislators continually move to privatize education, thus sending the message that business people are more knowledgeable about teaching and learning than those who have dedicated their lives to understanding teaching and learning.

Christopher Emdin is an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. A popular passage from his book, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood,” has been making its rounds in social media, often with only the text and no credit given to the author. To set straight who penned these words and to conclude this month’s column, consider Emdin’s words:

“The kind of teacher you will become is directly related to the kind of teachers you associate with. Teaching is a profession where misery does more than just love company — it recruits, seduces, and romances it. Avoid people who are unhappy and disgruntled about the possibilities for transforming education. They are the enemy of the spirit of the teacher.”

We conclude by building off Emdin’s idea. The kind of public education our children get is directly related to the kind of “teachers” we associate with. Let’s make sure that the public-school teachers we associate with are highly prepared professionals who are optimistic about constantly transforming public education to meet the needs of the people.

Those professionals are out there in droves if you’ll just look and listen.

When you are sick, talk to a nurse. When you are in need of legal counsel, contact a lawyer.

When your car breaks down, call a mechanic.

And when you need education, call a teacher.

Read more: 

What teaching is and isn’t