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Teachers Are Professionals

Teaching is both a calling and a profession. The dedication and sacrifices of teachers who follow their calling is justly celebrated. You often hear of teachers who pay for supplies with their own money, put in long hours, and intervene with extraordinary sensitivity to help struggling students.

Sometimes I think we honor all that in part because it lets us off the hook for the lack of respect shown to teaching as a profession. I thought a lot about what it means to be a professional back in my teaching days, and here’s the definition I came up with: An occupation becomes a profession when its practitioners organize themselves to promote and disseminate a research-based expertise and then strive to ensure that everyone who enters that occupation receives the appropriate education and upholds professional standards. The benefits of successful professionalization include enhanced social status, increased autonomy in their work, and the power to control who is and who isn’t let in.

Okay, that’s a lot to digest, so let’s take the example of the medical profession. Doctors are well organized through the American Medical Association and various specialized societies. Those organizations publish journals, hold meetings, and generally work to ensure that everyone in the field is kept up to speed on the latest expert knowledge. Doctors are rigorously trained and have largely succeeded in weeding out charlatans. In fact, you can go to jail for practicing medicine without a license. One consequence is that doctors generally make a very good living.

Compare that to the teaching profession. Although teachers have done most of the things that professionals do through organizations like Education Minnesota and through certification from accredited teaching programs, it has not paid off for them to anywhere near the same extent. If status in our society is measured in terms of income, teachers earn significantly less than other college graduates.

There are several reasons for that. Probably most important, teaching has historically been a feminized occupation, and women have always been paid less than men for doing comparable work. Then there is the fact that schools are funded mainly through local tax dollars, and there are all kinds of problems with that system.

No one goes into teaching expecting to get rich, but low pay is only part of the problem. The profession is also being undermined in ways that are both specific to them and part of a general assault on the professions. The best measure of that is their degree of autonomy. Even medical doctors have found their professional independence eroded by the demands of insurance companies and corporate hospital administrations. For teachers, though, it is again much worse. For years their freedom in the classroom has been constrained by a growing reliance on standardized testing and increasingly elaborate standards they must adhere to. Recently, however, the assault on their autonomy has kicked into overdrive. An attack from the right seeks to bar teachers from discussing race or sex in the classroom, as if somehow ignoring those issues would make them go away.

No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in droves, creating an acute teacher shortage. That in turn has animated a push for dispensing with the requirement that teachers be professionally educated and certified.

Fortunately, here in Moorhead we have school board candidates who understand these issues. Specifically, Clay County DFL has given letters of support to Lorilee Bergin and Marissa Ahlering. I urge you to give them your vote on November 8.

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