When I was a public school teacher, I bitched and complained just as much--and in all the same ways--as the school teachers I now have to deal with as a consultant. Every teacher who screams at me (though it's never really at me: "I don't mean to get angry at you--you're a nice guy--you seem to be a nice guy--but you don't understand what we have to deal with here...") could easily have been me...though I like to imagine I would have been more polite and diplomatic than most of the people I encounter.
The dissatisfactions and youjustdon'tunderstands that I hear aren't about pay, or working conditions, or things like that. They're almost always about how teachers feel that their autonomy and creativity are being taken away from them--that they are not being treated like professionals.
Well, that's interesting. I wasn't aware that autonomy and creativity were prerequisites for being a professional. Doctors and lawyers do have a certain amount of autonomy, I suppose, but I think they'd agree that they are expected to operate within very clear, definite, and universally accepted boundaries of Professional Behavior. They are held very accountable for what they do--to clients, to their professional organizations, and to the law. In fact, the professions they practice are so well defined that there is such a thing as malpractice, and they can be sued for it.
Imagine trying to sue a teacher for malpractice. Imagine finding a group of 10 teachers who could agree on a definition of what would constitute malpractice. They couldn't. Someone would always say, "But that's just the way I do it."
And that, right there, is the problem. To be a real profession, practitioners have to cede a certain amount of autonomy to their larger group to set clear boundaries for acceptable Professional Behavior. What are the protocols for how we do our job? What does right practice entail? How do we teach our future generations of practitioners, and then hold them accountable for their performance?
Well, we don't. There are no norms in teaching. Everything is up for debate (well...perhaps not beating the children. Perhaps), every position or point of view has advocacy somewhere, and no one is held accountable for anything. Every law school in this country teaches The Law. They may have their individual quirks, but they all teach The Law, their students all take The Bar (in whatever state they're in), and they can all practice law and be understood and accepted by graduates of any other law school in the country. Same thing in medicine. Once doctors are doctors, they are doctors. They've all learned their medicine; they've all taken their boards; they've all done their internships. You can mix and match them and do just fine. No one ever says, "Well, this is how I like to remove an appendix. Nurse, hand me that Xacto knife."
Try that with teachers. Take some Teacher's College or Bank Street graduates, mix them with graduates from some ed school in the Midwest, or maybe the South, and...well, who knows what might happen? They might agree; they might not. They might be able to teach together; they might not. You can't ever tell. And here's the thing: if they disagree--on any point in education or pedagogy (short of beating the children)--there is no independent authority who can arbitrate the disagreement. There is no answer. Everything is accepted by someone, so everything has to be treated as acceptable. This is why teachers can get away with saying, "You can't tell me what to teach," and "You can't tell me how to teach." You can't tell them anything. They are accountable to no one except themselves. Because it's personal, see?
And I was one of them. I know it. I just know that if I walked into a school today and had to deal with Younger Me, that little punk would say exactly the same thing. "No one can tell me what to teach!"
I'm sure I must have said it to someone, at some point. And it never occurred to me how idiotic it was--how insane. No one? No one can tell me what to do in my job? I alone--different from all other grown-ups with jobs in America--am beholden to no one? Accountable to no one? Free to do just whatever the hell I feel like doing? To other people's children? And all because I'm a teacher?
It's lunacy. It's abject lunacy. And the people who continue to spout it have no idea that they are the reason why No Child Left Behind happened--why it had to happen. They are the reason for state standards. Because teachers should be held accountable for what they teach and how they teach it--as much as lawyers or doctors, if not more. And when they have been held accountable, and are considered proficient practitioners in good standing, then fine--go be creative. Fight for some flexibility and autonomy. Because you've proved that you deserve it, and will handle it responsibly, and will not use it to the detriment of anyone's education. First pass the bar exam; then you can get away with making outrageous opening statements.
Accountability first. Then we'll talk.