Who Do We Think We Are?

During The Faculty Room’s last cycle, contributors responded to claims that teaching is an overrated career. Greg Farr titled his rejoinder “The Greatest Calling of All.” Gerry Kosater opened with the line, “A career in teaching is more meaningful than any other profession.”

This refrain isn’t new. Neither is my opposition to its Hollywood incarnations, but my reaction has reached a boil and I really have to ask three questions:

Is It True?

Is this the noblest, greatest, most meaningful profession? The impossibility of measuring nobility aside (much less ranking nobility) hypothetically, is teaching noble?

Maybe. But the reasoning in both posts – that every successful person was, at one point, taught – is thoroughly unconvincing. Can’t we say the same of every thief, rapist, and murderer? And how many people have succeeded in spite of their teachers? Are we claiming we’re the noblest on average? That the Escalantes balance out the Letourneaus? How can we perpetuate the absolute nobility of a job in which so many people freely perform ignoble deeds?

What Good Is It?

Perhaps this incantation serves as some compensation for those teachers who elected this job out of self-sacrifice, social obligation, a “calling,” or another emotional impetus which – I point out in full disclosure – I almost certainly do not share.

In short, for a lot of teachers, the refrain feels good to say. It feels good to hear.

What Harm Is It?

Lots, where I work, where I aim at professional work in a job which doesn’t demand professionalism. Daily, I leap at and sometimes clear a bar which exists only in my head, in the work ethic I have self-imposed, a bar which in reality hovers shin high. Can I tell you: the friction between what my job asks of me and what I ask of myself is spectacular.

I want teaching to be a viable option for professionals – for people motivated more by the challenge this job offers an intelligent, persistent worker than by noble aspirationsNot that one can’t claim both. Please let’s skip that criticism. – and, towards that goal, these refrains are an impediment.

Because professionals do not issue bulletins proclaiming their nobility. Professionals proclaim heightened standards of care and increasingly rigorous self-critique. Professionals fight for and maintain their public’s trust.

Tell me how we earn that trust when we protect the worst among us from oversight, when we shun professional standards even in the abstract, when we then sing this nobler-than-thou hymn on the doorstep of the same white- and blue-collar workers who pay our salaries?

These poems and platitudes give the impression that we are fine over here – further recompense unnecessary – content in our cloud of self-importance. But I am not fine. I need more from my 60-hour work week, more from my career, and more from my job than poems and platitudes.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. The main problem I have with this post lies with that footnote, because I would venture to guess that the majority of blogger educators who buy into the teaching-as-a-calling paradigm also tackle their jobs with that spirit of professionalism you’ve so thoroughly embraced. For those that do not, the tone of this post quite adroitly impedes its potential to convince them of anything. So, then, who exactly are you speaking to here and what did you hope to accomplish with these words?

    Sure, taken out of context a poem celebrating the nobility of teaching may imply that the job is perfect as it is, but you’re certainly too smart to think that celebrating the good (subjective as it may be) precludes addressing the bad.

  2. Uh, gosh, commenter 1 — it spoke to me, as I finish up my master’s and prepare to student teach in the fall. I realize that I’m going into a slogan and feel-good heavy profession (especially at the K-6 level). But, I’m so not that person, not personally and certainly not in a classroom. So, it spoke to me.

    Also, I think it points the way to what needs to change about the image of teaching. Less chicken soup, more substance. Less pride, more to be proud of.

  3. @Q, the balance between the good-celebrating and the bad-addressing needs a serious recalibration, by my reckoning. Who we think we are, who we are, and who we should be are all very different workers, at the moment.

  4. Any profession has its Escalantes and Letourneaus. However, using these outliers should not be basis for determining professional standards. Angels and demons aside, teaching as a profession has suffered because tension between unions and administration; both sides create a race to the bottom in terms of professional standards and compensation. These bureaucratic systems lack the ability to assess teacher performance in a meaningful way. Teachers need to demand more from the representatives and administrators or risk becoming the product of a system that unwittingly seeks to infantilize them.

  5. Dan et al,

    As an administrator (who formerly served tours of duty as a high school LA teacher of 8 years) I think I will attempt to explain why the poems and platitudes are being published, touted, and embraced… it’s the fact that since the mid-20th century, teachers were no longer considered as professionals, but as a highly politically active labor union.

    Before you [all of you] start screaming at the screen, hear me out.

    I want teachers to be viewed and treated as professionals. I do my damnedest to see and treat every teacher I work with as nothing less than a professional; full of information, knowledge, and know-how. But does your teacher’s union see you this way?

    Read your teaching contract very, very carefully. Download a copy of a labor agreement from any industry. They are remarkably similar (time in, time out, terms of employment, sick leave, days alloted, on an on). When was the last time ANY teacher/district contract impass or negotiation hinged on an educational priority or issue? Do those professions whome the public widely accepts as a profession work under these terms? Are lawyers, doctors, CPAs, hell, even professional ball players ever told what, when, and how to do their work as much as teachers are? Nope.

    While the NEA and UFT have done wonders for the salaries, I fear they may have sacrificed the dignity of the title of teacher in the process. (NOTE: read Kahlenberg’s book Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.)

    I can’t stress enough how I view great teachers. I need them to be successful and visa-versa. I want the unions to begin to see their members as professionals, not just large blocks of voters, PAC contributors, or laborers. Why don’t they demand all teacher contracts be designed with professionalism in mind? Think of a contract that allows you – the professional – to make decisions (think the grading thing debated here, testing, assessing, etc.). A contract that reflects your intellect and ability rather than your state certification status.

    So, I think the poems and self-promotion seen on The Faculty Room and around the web are really rallying cries – teachers want to be seen and treated like professionals. But they work under labor-union standards.

    Peace be with you. I am rooting for all of you.

  6. SIDE BAR: please see this site for a refreshing view of teaching. http://www.virginiaeducators.org/newlabor.html

    In their own words,

    “…Change may only come when enough of America’s teachers wake up to the fact that being inextricably linked to labor unions will never allow them to receive the respect and rewards they seek. A report by Carl Van Horn of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University underscores this point. He says, “Teachers are not the sympathetic group they were 20 years ago. They used to be perceived as a profession and now they are perceived as just a union.” Here’s the bottom line-teachers will never get the pay they deserve if they continue to be linked with organized labor!”

  7. @Mike, I agree with and appreciate your analysis up until the end where you call the poems and platitudes calls to professionalism.

    In tone and effect, those platitudes have given up on the tangible rewards and benefits a professional enjoys and retreat instead to intangible reassurances.

    I wish it were the opposite but every time I read one I sense teachers sliding away from what matters. I say that as a teacher and as a taxpayer.

  8. @ Jen: I consider you to be a member of the the proverbial choir in this case, and thus not someone who benefits from hearing these words. Something that’s just a different brand of ra-ra fluff is as problematic as that which it decries.

    @ Dan: Fair enough. I apologize for being snide. Upon first reading this, it seemed more like a bitch session than an attempt at anything productive (I suppose you did intimate your motivations at the start). After letting my brain catch up with me, I can see where you are coming from, but I still think the issue you’ve raised is something of a red herring.

    Civil service jobs will never be the same as “professional” jobs as you use the word. No matter what the pay, or the expectations, or the professional standards, some people will continue to be motivated by mushy things like “making a difference.” Even were I to agree that they are making things difficult for the rest of us, the fact is that they will always be around. By getting mad at them, you are allowing yourself to be affected negatively (to the detriment of your cause) while concurrently weakening your ability to enlist them as allies, which should be your ultimate goal.

    To flagrantly ignore your request again, let me ask you this: if you met your long lost teacher twin who does everything exactly like you do, who has the same vision as you for the future of education, but who also writes cheesy poems about how great it is to be a teacher, would you tell him that he is holding back the profession? What if he disagreed? Would you push the issue? Would you write him off?

  9. I’m somewhere along the lines of Q’s thinking. I see where you’re coming from, as you have been for the last year, to try and push the agenda to more professionalism, but every job is different, and every job is marketed differently. For instance, the Armed Forces are asked to “defend our country” even when they’re going into countries that may be allies of the United States. Nonetheless, they’re considered heroes, and are expected to conduct themselves with a sense of professionalism. That’s still there, no matter how many songs we write about them or times we salute the flag in their honor, they’re still expected to do the best job they can, right?

    Nonetheless, because for many teachers, they can lose that morale when they’re in jobs like these, poetry and the arts can be used (maybe vaingloriously) to boost their morale, and in many cases, to continue to pursue that professionalism. Most of the veteran teachers I know (and I’m talking about a lot of them since most of the teachers in my school have a good 10+ years in the system) demand professionalism from their administrators and thus conduct themselves professionally.

    Maybe this is just true in my school, or in my city for that matter, but we do see ourselves as professional educators, but we also need the humanities because it’s a job where many of us actually give a lot of ourselves. Not saying that you don’t, but you’re making an argument for separating the personal from the professional, which I respect. Yet, the way teaching has been marketed for us over decades now is that it’s not just about a salary and benefits but the chance to change someone’s life. The signs are all there. We can’t ignore the fact that it’s this human pull that makes so many people gravitate towards the job to begin with.

    I think we need to find a medium, which is odd coming from me, I know. I’m all for professionalism, and I’m constantly trying to improve my craft, (another reason why I have you and others in my Google Reader). But I also knew coming in that this wasn’t a “professional” job. Maybe we need to redefine the teacher label and help develop professional standards.

  10. A semi-tangent off of mike, but bear with me. Does this mean that one possible solution is to follow folks like me into the private sector? The awful administrators and movie-reliant teachers who have popped up as straw men here in the comments aren’t quite so common in private schools, because they get asked to leave.
    If there’s something in your brain or heart that tweaks when you think about leaving public schools, then you’re perhaps more prone to poem-writing than you might wish to believe.

  11. I left teaching a year ago and took a corporate job. The people with whom I work are talented, smart, and exceedingly professional (and still manage to be fun, interesting people in the process). The job serves the Children’s Bureau’s efforts to review and continually improve the Child Welfare Program … a noble goal.

    None of my co-workers write poems about the nobility of their calling.

    I’m not saying you’re a bad teacher if you write poems, but my personal experience tells me that the best teachers are far less concerned with the noble calling than with getting the job done, and done well.

    As for Q’s question about the intended audience here, I fear the worst: those who have ears to hear, let them hear. (Yep, a bit defeatist and unhelpful, I know.)

  12. @Q: I don’t mean to imply a lot of anger here. This is simply the thread I’m hanging by. Silver linings forthcoming.

  13. Q: I consider you to be a member of the the proverbial choir in this case, and thus not someone who benefits from hearing these words. Something that’s just a different brand of ra-ra fluff is as problematic as that which it decries.

    Wow, I’m in a proverbial choir? It’s the first choir that’ll have me, that’s for sure.

    Which words are the ones I can’t benefit from? The ra-ra ones or Dan’s? You’ll have to keep me updated on what I should and shouldn’t read.

    If an allergy to ra-ra fluff is iin fact a form of ra-ra fluff, well, I guess I’m guilty as charged. But what exactly is *your* point here? Is it that teaching is a noble profession or that slogans about its nobility are sacrosanct?

  14. I suppose that I consider Dan’s blog as his non-sappy version of poetry about the nobility of the calling. And I find his blog
    1) far more readable and literate
    2) far more useful

    Dan’s identical twin? Still wouldn’t write poetry or hang posters of kittens hanging on by one paw. I can pretty much guarantee it. He might graph the kitten’s exploits, but that’s as far as it would go.

  15. For whatever else it’s worth to anyone bothering with the comments here, in spite of my failings as a blogger and an online community member, this site has been – from first post to last – a concerted effort at reconstructing the narrative of a Teacher and, particularly, that of a New Teacher.

    There are loftier goals for a blog, certainly, but this has been mine.

  16. Hey Dan.. “F” those who say what you do is not quality or respectable. I see them as blogging elitists.

    I just recently sent about 6 “edublog” sites into the galactic abyss and off my reader today. They bored me. They were not talking about the front lines issues and the teacher/learner engagement. I got sick of reading about other people’s blog post on other people’s blogs.

    Rock on. Crank it up.

  17. @Dan: You have no failings as a blogger. Period. I am not being nice. This is true.

    @ Jen: I apologize. I seem to have been unclear, which probably was not helped by my semi-hostile tone. What I was saying is that I see Dan as an agent of change (in a good way), but when he makes a point in such a way that the only people who will listen to it are already in full agreement, an opportunity has been lost. And yes, that expectation is absolutely unfair to Dan, who by the way was without exaggeration a primary influence on my own decision to become an educator (I’m just another 20-something neophyte here). My aim was to keep the dialog productive because I think unquestioned professionalism is absolutely an important goal.

    So when I said you were a member of the choir, I merely meant that you were someone on the level with Dan’s point of view before you even read this post. You seem to think I was implying that you were a koolaid-drinking sheep, which I assure you was not my intent.

    Frankly, I tend to cringe at any “noble calling, bla bla bla” rhetoric. But, I don’t consider it to be especially dangerous by itself. To pull a fully personal and anecdotal piece of evidence out of the air, my dad has been a classroom teacher (repeatedly turning down administrative positions) for over 30 years. He still works 50+ hour weeks, he’s always looking to better himself in the classroom, and he considers teaching to be his (noble) calling. I highly doubt he’d ever write a cheesy poem about it, but for me, he proves that we are not facing a dichotomous situation here. He might, however, take offense at anyone who considers his motivations to be suspect. That may be a vain reaction on his part, but I would team up with a faculty member like him any day of the week before I feuded with him, when his motivations really don’t affect my endgame.

  18. The really sad part about a union contract is that both principals and teachers (who so choose) get to hide in it when it suits them. This allows for managers who don’t lead, followers who don’t follow, and eagles to die.

  19. Actually, I wrote a poem once. Well really, it was a rap about the multiplicative inverse. Figured it was the only way my kids would be able to recall that many syllables.

    Not very noble, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.

  20. Groan…. not enough coffee yet. Here it is. Sorry for breaking the thread.

    Multiplicative Inverse

    Yo’ hear my verse for multiplicative inverse.
    I know it sounds rough but my math is tough.
    Multiplicative’s indicative of multiply by
    And inverse just the reverse for the things that I do.

    So I put it all together and it’s lighter than a feather,
    Just revision by division of the product I got

  21. I’ve been teaching/working for, hmmmm, 30 years. And the entire time I’ve advocated for year-round teaching (not necessarily with students) and higher pay/benefits. Professionalism comes with time to “be professional.” I love my summers off as much as the next person, but I would prefer time (without students) to work on innovative ideas, discussions with colleagues, and yes, even new forms of technology for the classroom. This is not a popular concept.

  22. Come to my school. Teach for my administration. They set a very high bar of professionalism. No crap, just pure “if the children aren’t learning, you didn’t do your job right”.

    This is why I teach at my school. On the other hand, I do think that teaching is a calling. It takes a calling to go so long without a “thank you” for those that you help. It takes a calling to spend so much out of pocket to do your job. Most other jobs buy you all the supplies you need.

    The ability to pass along information should not be confused with a calling. A calling is a love for, or strong desire to do a job.

  23. A couple of things running through my mind after reading (and re-reading) this post and all the comments:

    1. If you want to feel good about yourself as a teacher, then do a good job. Engage, challenge and respect your students. While it is nice to hear from others that you are doing a good job, a true professional will do his/her job regardless. I don’t want to hear from other teachers how great I am; I want to see proof of my professionalism in the acievements of my students.

    2. The concept of tenure, to a large extent, teachers to become complacent, resistant of change, resistant of progress. Remove tenure, remove the restrictive nature of steps-and-columns, and allow teachers to negotiate aspects of their remuneration. Then let’s see how long laggards (with respect to technology, constructivism, connectivism, and most other -isms associated with good teaching) stay around. I’m liberal most ways but a competitive market is good in this case.

    3. I left my job teaching in SoCal in August 2000, partly because I needed a change and partly because I didn’t feel that I could side with my co-workers (who were threatening to strike) or with my district (by crossing the impending picket line). In the end, it didn’t matter since the grievance was settled with a minor (like, $500/year minor) increase in pay. I’m glad I left and I’ll never go back.

  24. @ Clint: While I strongly agree with #2, I think there’s more to say about #1.

    On the surface, your statement seems true enough, but really it opens up a larger issue: the lack of professional standards for educators based on an array of factors (not solely on student outcomes).

    I would disagree that “a professional will do his/her job regardless” of whether or not he/she receives feedback. A volunteer, a martyr, a saint, or a ridiculously-overpaid worker will do his/her job regardless of feedback (or consequence), but a professional would insist on professional standards of practice and would want to be evaluated against those standards by others who are well-respected in the field. Otherwise, how does a professional assess his/her professional skill and thereby advance? Advancement in a chosen field is a key objective for any professional.

    I think this is a major point for Dan (to put words in his mouth, sorry): teachers shouldn’t get to feel good about themselves simply because they care a lot, work hard, and do their job regardless of feedback. The danger is that teachers can be ineffective (or worse) and still care a lot and work hard and not need (or want) feedback (i.e. critique).

    Of course, critique must be of the kind that matters (as your #2 implies): continuation in the profession must hinge upon it. Which means the critique must be coming from someone skilled in the profession (ahem) and must be based upon more than three hour-long “observations.” And that just opens up all sorts of bags full of wriggly things …

  25. @ Eric: A good distinction, and one that I agree with. I was referring to (quite poorly, now that I read it again) the “poems and platitudes”. It is imperative that teachers are evaluated by other teachers or administrators who are themselves professional in their expectations and critiques, and that those teachers receive praise and criticism with similar reactions: this is an opportunity for me to improve.

    Can you imagine the teacher’s-lounge banter that would ensue if a neutral third party came in and gave honest, constructive criticism to some of your most-tenured teachers?

  26. Dan: Scientist, Attorney, Doctor…Thief, Rapist, Murderer…it’s all about CHOICES.

    My job is make it possible for students to have some control over their future and to – hopefully – make wise, informed choices.

    Who do I think I am?

    An enabler, an encourager, a person who makes a difference. Do I need anyone’s praise? No. Am I professional enough to take criticism? Yes, even from you.

  27. It is so interesting to read teachers’ perspectives on this issue of professionalism. There is a parallel in the world of School Psychology in public education. There are some SPs who should have been fired many many years ago and everyone is just waiting for them to retire. Yet with the Union contract, they stay, and drag our profession’s name through the mud. I understand there is a shortage of SPs and teachers, but keeping ones who are clearly ineffective and unprofessional seems ethically wrong.

  28. Yeah, I figured you were up to the task, Greg. See, the funny thing with your writing is how heavily you emphasize the inspiration, intangible difference-making aspects of teaching, while in your practice, I know you to be well-versed in data-based decision making (with your dashboards).

    Your skill as an educator depends on both and yet your writing leans heavily to one side of the dichotomy. You aren’t alone in this. I realize “responsible data collection” isn’t a sexy writing prompt but I have to believe a little attention to it would go a long way with this crowd.

  29. In a slightly different twist than normal, I had a senior who’s no longer in my class come by my room this week. I asked what she’s thinking about doing next. “A cop. And I”ll get to work summers, unlike you. Ain’t it true that you don’t work during summer?”

    It was my first time hearing the suggestion that teachers don’t work during the summer and would be jealous of those who do. I think she was indicating money instead of professionalism, but it’s intrigued me.

  30. A noble profession, a bold statement indeed but one that some believe to be true. Doesn’t make us lean one way or the other. We still make data driven decisions, study the research and we are inspired by knowing what we do can and will make a difference.
    Those who are along just for the”platitudes” won’t last. They need both to be effective and that won’t happen, too much work.