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The Regulated Lives of Teachers


Dear Deb,

No, I don't think the dilemmas you describe are as omnipresent in all of life's vocations as they are in teaching. I don't have the classroom experience that you have. I have taught mainly graduate students in my life as a professor and have spent most of my time as a historian and writer about education. In many ways, maybe most ways, that puts me at a disadvantage in comparison to you. But the great advantage that I have had in my own career has been that I have been free from the kinds of dictates and mandates that you have encountered. The life of a professor and a writer is far, far less regulated than the life of a teacher!

Most professors, I think, have tenure, which insulates them from political pressures. I have never had tenure and have not had that layer of protection. In 1994, I was pushed out of my untenured position at Teachers College because (as I was told at the time), my colleagues did not like my views. Fortunately for me, I landed at New York University, also untenured, and so far no one has told me that my views demand my exclusion.

I am not teaching now, just writing. When students ask me for advice, I encourage them to be true to themselves, but I know that in the university today, there are limitations on what one is allowed to say and believe and write. Of course, you can say and believe and write anything, but if you offend the reigning orthodoxy in your department, you cannot count on being hired the next year unless you already have tenure. So, the unwritten rule for born rule-breakers is to stay in the conventional mode and keep your views to yourself until after you have tenure.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind that people who work in higher education are far freer than teachers to express their views, to criticize their leaders, and to dissent from current policies. There is far likelier to be open dissent and discussion in the university setting about the university's policies than there will be in schools about the policies of the school, the "system," the district, or the state.

Back in the 1930s, Howard K. Beale wrote a book titled "Are American Teachers Free?" His answer was negative, because there were so many restraints on teachers' freedom of belief and speech. Today, for different reasons, the challenges to teachers' freedom of belief and speech are very different. Yet, I think that if a similar book were written, it would come to disturbing conclusions about teachers' freedom and professionalism.




Our teachers are in a no-win situation. They are asked to put everything of themselves into education (designing curricula, teaching, grading and supporting our students) and yet are completely controlled/regulated. The better teachers that I have known have told me that they learned how to “nod their head at the administration and then shut the door to the classroom and just teach.”

What they have learned is that successful teachers have to work against the structure of school to enable our children to learn. How horrible is that? No wonder we have such a high attrition rate among new teachers.

But this situation is due to our school structure and not due to the lack of quality teachers or administrators.

What works better (used by other school systems around the world and produces better test results) is a structure where the teacher can concentrate and develop professional judgment only on teaching. The determination of curricular content and the evaluation of the students is someone else’s responsibility (local or national educational departments).

When teachers hear about a national curricula, it seems that the negative reaction stems from the feeling that they will be even more controlled within the classroom; wherein the curricula gives a scripted lesson plan that every teacher would need to follow. But the scripted lesson plan is not used in successful school systems and we would be foolish to adopt such an ill-advised educational plan.

To become effective teachers, people must have professional judgment and freedom. But that professionalism should be directed solely at teaching. Teachers in other, more successful school systems are encouraged to develop professionally by focusing on what works best in getting children to learn.

Deborah’s call for creative non-compliance reflects more on the poor structure of our school system, than a positive statement about quality teaching.

Erin Johnson

I agree with the fact that you can be yourself more in your style of teaching if you are tenured. If you are not tenured, you still have to play by the book and stay in conventional mode.

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