How teaching got a bad rap

When I* first decided that I wanted to be a teacher – which was freshman year in college – I often received the following responses: “Why?” “That’s not going to make much money.” “But you could do anything!” As many other teachers have experienced, the teaching profession as a whole is not afforded much status in United States. While perhaps sometimes considered a “noble” profession because of the idea that it is a selfless endeavor, few kids seem to grow up wanting to be teachers. And this is a big problem for our country.

Enrollment in education majors and teacher preparation programs – even the once popular Teach for America – is notably dropping. Meanwhile, the country is headed toward a teacher shortage, as baby-boomers will likely be retiring in droves in coming years. But this isn’t the case all over the world. In other developed countries, including those that constantly score at the top of international education rankings like PISA, teaching is a desirable and respected profession, attracting more aspiring teachers than can be trained or employed. There are a number of reasons why teaching in the U.S. is not valued as it should be. And it is my hope that just maybe, if we better understand the historical sources of teaching’s “bad rap,” we can work to change public perception about teachers.

Our forefathers essentially neglected public education when they constructed the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights. Many of them had received little formal education themselves, and thus perhaps did not believe a focus on education was necessary. Despite what many people think, education is not explicitly mentioned in these federal documents. Instead, the constitution granted all unmentioned powers to the states. And education became a state-by-state right, and one that haphazardly emerged across the country with different laws in different states governing this enterprise, and unsurprisingly, to different effects. This “non-system,” as Professor David Cohen is fond of calling it, made teaching a bit of a tricky profession to pursue, with absent or disorganized structures for training teachers, little consistency across locations, and a lack of initial oversight, which often yielded undesirable working conditions. In a pioneering country where land ownership and trade promised financial advancement, teaching in makeshift schools – often done for room and board instead of currency – was not considered a terribly desirable profession.

Women still wanted to be teachers, though. While most other professions were off-limits to women, society more readily accepted women into a profession built around providing care and guidance for children. From the 1800s onward, women flocked to teaching (often to escape undesirable marriage prospects), which resulted in the common idea that teaching was “women’s work.” Given that the work of women has always been relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy, this association made the profession less desirable for men. Instead, men occupied administrative roles over schools, serving as principals, policymakers, and professors – setting the rules that teachers had to follow. Nonetheless, women continued to pursue teaching as one of their only professional outlets, thus providing schools with a qualified and dedicated labor force that had few other employment options. This allowed schools to get away with paying teachers significantly less than they deserved for their labor. But when women’s professional options later expanded, teaching became less and less desirable, and the labor pool of eligible teachers began to dwindle. After all, sexism is so pervasive that not even women want to aspire to “women’s work.”

The desirability of teaching was further crippled by increasing standardization in the early 1900s. While teachers historically enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in their classrooms, a new push toward “efficiency” in curriculum and instruction began to constrain the limited authority teachers possessed over what happened in their classrooms. This is a factor that continues to threaten the desirability of teaching, as the reinvigorated push toward new standardized tests and “teacher proof” curriculum continues to frame teachers as mere cogs in the machine of education.

In addition to low-wages, an undesirable reputation for being “women’s work,” and a general loss of autonomy, teachers also had little job stability. Principals often hired and fired people at whim – giving favor to family members and friends, firing pregnant women and those who opposed their policies. While teachers were subjected to oversight, principals were not. In conditions such as these, who would want to be a teacher? In response to this undesirable state, teachers began to assemble and fight for their rights. In conjunction with the women’s rights movement in this country, teachers’ unions were born.

Teachers unions accomplished a number of important advances for both teachers and students. They improved conditions in schools, secured more resources for students, arranged more job protections for teachers, and advocated for more transparency in hiring and firing practices. However, teachers’ unions faced constraints from rules governing how they collectively bargained, including those imposed upon them by the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). While unionizing produced admirable results, the common methods of achieving these results – such as picketing and going on strike – seem to have further compromised the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, who often viewed these acts as self-interested and “blue collar.” Instead of realizing the overall benefit to schools and students that resulted from the formation of these teachers’ unions, society seemed to recoil at the prospect of mostly women making demands that appeared selfish. (It seems to me that women are still not allowed to be selfish.) While I will not go into depth here about the complicated position of teachers’ unions in the U.S. today, it’s worth noting that popular rhetoric continues to vilify teachers’ unions and by extension, teachers.

Moreover, because everyone was a student, and spent countless hours in schools observing teachers in action, many think anyone can teach. This goes along with the saying “those who can’t do, teach!” which implies that teaching is easier than most other professions. This is of course a glaring fallacy; and upon stepping on the other side of the curtain, new teachers quickly learn how incredibly hard it is to become a mediocre teacher, let alone an effective one! But the perception of teaching as a job anyone can do is consistent with what it pays – a meager salary when compared to other equivalent professions (like psychology and law); as a result, some teachers must become Uber drivers on the side just to make ends meet.

The status of teaching is not helped by the fact that teacher education – the manner in which teachers should be prepared for this incredibly challenging profession – consists of a similar “non-system.” Preparation for teachers developed along with schools, without much rhyme or reason. And until recently, the nearly 2000 different teacher preparation programs in this country faced little to no regulation or oversight. While aspiring teachers pay a great deal to attend these programs – an expense they will not soon recoup on a teacher’s salary – there is still really no guarantee that they will learn all they need to teach effectively. Meanwhile, a number of “alternative routes” like Teach for America continue to place teachers in the classroom with very little training at all. This further perpetuates the idea that teachers don’t need training. While the preparation of doctors and lawyers is viewed as rigorous, stretching over multiples years and culminating with high stakes performance exams, teacher training has existed without the public demand for such common structures. In fact, most other skilled professions – including cosmetology, plumbing, the clergy – requires more training than teaching. Shouldn’t the individuals who spend so much time with our precious children, essentially helping to shape the future of this nation, be better prepared for this endeavor? I will discuss this more in future blogs. But the point I want to make here is that the devaluation of teaching as a profession feeds the devaluation of teacher education, which in turn perpetuates the myth that teachers don’t need training and reinforces the low social status of the profession as a whole.

While a number of factors have influenced the public’s disparaging opinion of teaching as a profession in the United States, it is time to face this unfortunate history in order to address our misperceptions. While teachers still face many undesirable realities in today’s schools – including crowded classrooms, standardized testing, long hours, and low pay (which all continue to impact the low-status of the profession) – it is time to realize how very important, challenging, and truly admirable teaching is. And it’s time to change how we select, prepare, support, reward, and regard teachers. Our future depends on it.

*I am admittedly not a historian of education. Nonetheless, I have spent a great time studying teaching at HGSE and have learned a lot about the history of teaching in the process. Some of the resources that have informed my knowledge and beliefs on this topic include:

  • Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher
  • Pat Graham’s Schooling America
  • Raymond Callahan’s Education & The Cult of Efficiency
  • The work of David Cohen and his course on Democracy in Education
  • Various articles by Susan Moore Johnson and her courses on Teacher Quality & Teachers’ Unions

6 thoughts on “How teaching got a bad rap”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to dissect why being a teacher has been so devalued! I taught for thirty years and it was the most gratifying work I could have done! The box of letters and momentos under my bed symbolize this proud body of work and yes…the “blood, sweat and tears” that went along with doing this work from my heart. I think all of your points make sense as to why teaching is in the state it is in America! Occasionally, I have heard some of the discriminatory comments about the profession (i.e. Wow, you are so lucky- you get three months off for “x” pay!). I have always said that there will never be a shortage of people-usually women that will continue to do this work for the amount of pay that is offered. Yes, absolutely, teachers deserve more pay! While delivering the academic curriculum, teachers are constantly “working” the psychosocial aspect of each person in a room with 20-35 people! They are know that their response to each student must be differentiated based on who they are. The hope is to create people that are excited about being lifelong learners who positively contribute to the community. Simply said- TEACHERS INSPIRE students that will shape the world we live in! Again, good to better understand why teaching in general is not as valued as many other professions.

    1. So true. I truly loved teaching, but it was the hardest work I have ever done! And I am lucky to have had teachers like you to inspire me!

  2. Truly enjoyed your article. It was thought provoking and hit all the major points EXCEPT the lack of value placed on true education in the U.S. today. Everyone want his child to have a diploma, a degree, good grades, acceptance to a good school but doesn’t see the relationship between the effort put forth by the student and the outcomes. One thing I learned after 35 years in the classroom was that I usually worked harder than my students and that if they had worked half as hard as I did, they would have been twice as successful as they were.

    1. Thanks, Mrs. Hagen. Your point is an interesting one. I think it might depend on the student population being served. I didn’t have the same experience – I definitely worked hard, but most of my students also put in a lot of hard work to get by. But I do think that you are right that there are some people (certainly including some who I went to high school with!) who feel entitled to attaining good grades and advanced degrees without hard work, which is not a good way to look at the whole educational endeavor. Thanks for sharing!

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