Are Public School Teachers Treated As Professionals?

Imagine you are in treatment for an illness, and your doctor comes in to review your progress.  Imagine further that, when you ask about your options for therapy and medication, you are told the following: “This is a list of approved treatments and medications for your condition that has been supplied to me by hospital management, and you may have only what is on this list.”  You would probably be shocked and outraged, expecting that your physician’s professional training and judgment would be the major factor in determining your treatment.

Now imagine that you are a parent talking to your child’s teacher who, when you ask about some book or course of instruction, is told that it is not an approved material or method; your child, therefore, may not be taught it.  This common situation points out the eternal conundrum of education: We expect our public school teachers to be professionals operating within the narrowest of professional guidelines, which, or course, calls into question whether you can truly be considered a professional if you do not have the ability to exercise professional judgment in the course of your duties.

Some operational guidelines, of course, make perfect sense, just as they do for all professionals.  We do not want any professional, regardless of occupation, to engage in activities that are of highly questionable efficacy or are potentially harmful to those in their care.  Also, in order for effective instruction to reach across grades, there must be some basic agreements in place to guide the types of material that need to be covered in different grade levels and in different academic content areas.

However, one of the perverse effects of the performance mandates of the No Child Left Behind legislation is that the options offered to teachers for instructional methods and materials grow fewer and fewer by the year.  This happens because, faced with poor results and increasing performance pressures, those in charge of our schools respond as managers in all businesses do—by increasingly systematizing the workday of their employees, in this case the faculty.

The only problem with this is opportunities for teacher initiative and innovation are lost.  In fact, trying to do something different than what is in the binder provided by the school district is bound to get a teacher in a good deal of trouble these days.  Therefore, we see more and more cookbook instruction and methods that inspire neither those providing the education nor those receiving it

The outcome of the ongoing effort to turn teachers into instructional automatons is that fewer and fewer talented and imaginative individuals remain in the profession because they may be disinclined to remain jobs that are, as one of my former colleagues put it, increasingly run according to “Management by Shut Up”.  Do we really want to create a system where the only people who will stick around are the ones who adore acronym-filled memorandums and procedure manuals?  We have to remember that our schools are supposed to educate children, not process them like peanut butter.  Education cannot exist without the excitement that creative professional teachers bring to work every day.

Also, the more you turn schools into top-down bureaucracies, the less likely you are to have teachers in the system who will speak up when they see a wrong that must be righted.  Whether it is an abuse of power, money that is being misspent, or a child who is in harm’s way, absolute obedience to a rulebook is prone to cause many more problems than it solves because those who live under the rulebook have been taught that the best way to get along is to go along.  Professional teachers must have the prerogatives—and protections—of professionals in other occupations, or they will not be able to effectively serve the communities in which they work or educate and protect the children in their charge.

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