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That's Not Teacher-Like

I’ve been reading Albert Shanker’s “The Power of Ideas: Al In His Own Words,” the American Educator’scompendium of Al’s speeches and columns, published posthumously in 1997. What an enjoyable, witty and informative collection of essays.

Two columns especially caught my attention: “That’s Very Unprofessional Mr. Shanker!” and “Does Pavarotti Need to File an Aria Plan” – where Al discusses expectations for (and treatment of) teachers. They made me reflect, yet again, on whether perceptions of teacher professionalism might be gendered. In other words, when society thinks of the attributes of a professional teacher, might we unconsciously be thinking of women teachers? And, if so, why might this be important?

In “That’s Very Unprofessional, Mr. Shanker!” Al writes:

The word professional was often used then to beat teachers down or keep them in line. I can remember my first exposure to it as a teacher. I started in a very tough elementary school in New York City and had great doubts that I would make it; the three teachers who had preceded me that year with my sixth-grade class had not.

After a couple of weeks, the assistant principal appeared at my classroom door. I remember thinking, “Thank God! Help has come.” I motioned him in, but he stood there for what seemed like a very long time, pointing at something. Finally, he said, “Mr. Shanker, I see a lot of paper on the floor in the third aisle. It’s very unsightly and very unprofessional.” Then the door closed and he left.

So to be neat, as opposed to “unsightly” or messy, is what is expected from the ideal teacher. Messiness is not teacher-like. But there’s more:

Soon after that, I went to my first faculty meeting. In those days, not many men taught in grades K-8; there was only one other male teacher in my school. The principal distributed the organizational chart of the school with a schedule of duties—who had hall patrol, lunch patrol, and so forth, including “snow patrol.” By tradition, snow patrol, which involved giving up lunch period and walking around outside warning kids not to throw snowballs at each other, was a job for a male teacher. And, sure enough, Mr. Jones and Mr. Shanker found themselves assigned to it. Mr. Jones raised his hand and asked, “Now that there are two men on the faculty to handle snow patrol, would it be okay to rotate—you know, the first day of snow, he goes and the next day I go?” The principal frowned at him and replied, “Mr. Jones, that is veryunprofessional. First of all, the duty schedule has already been mimeographed, as you see. Secondly, I am surprised that you aren’t concerned that one child might throw a snowball at another, hit him in the eye, and do permanent damage. It’s very unprofessional of you.”

So making perfectly reasonable suggestions about the organization of one’s own work assignments (i.e., taking turns to do snow patrol, so that kids are supervised but only one teacher at time has to give up his lunch break), is viewed as evidence of selfishness and lack of professionalism. Definitely not teacher-like.

In a second column with the hilarious title “Does Pavarotti Have to File an Aria Plan?”, Shanker makes a related point. While he strongly advocates competitive salaries for teachers, he is aware that higher compensation alone isn’t enough to attract and retain enough talented young people into the teaching force:

Aside from money, the other big issue is the way teachers are treated by their supervisors. In many ways they are treated like children.

One example is the practice of requiring teachers to prepare lock-step lesson plans. New York City high school teachers are in a state of great demoralization because most principals require them to prepare detailed plans written according to a particular management-by-objectives approach. This is another clerical chore, another time-consuming ritual.

Of course, teachers need to plan, and most of them do, in their way, especially at the high school level. But does every teacher have to do the same amount of planning and in the same format? Do all the plans have to be inspected on the same morning? But, more important, what are plans for? They are supposed to help teachers improve their instruction. But now, in many of our schools, teachers are not given a satisfactory rating, no matter how good they are as teachers, unless they have complied with the ritualistic plan book requirements. This is clear management incompetence. Would anybody rate Pavarotti a poor opera singer because he failed to fill out bureaucratic forms telling management how he intends to approach each aria?

Here, interpreting the rules more flexibly (by not submitting lesson plans written in a specific way at a specific time) can translate into penalties for teachers, “no matter how good they are as teachers.” Compliance is rewarded; independence and autonomy are not teacher-like.

So what have we learned from these anecdotes, so far?

To be deemed professional, teachers must be neat, passive, selfless, and compliant. Sound familiar? These are all traits associated with traditional views of women.

Some time ago, psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske coined the term “benevolent sexism” to refer to the idea that women are often treated in a manner that appears positive but isn’t – e.g., treating women like children. Are teachers as a group viewed and treated like children because the teacher workforce is predominantly female? Research on this suggests that that is one reason, but not the only reason.

Two studies (also here) with nationally representative data have shown that, controlling for education, experience,and the sex of the jobholder, the extent to which a job requires nurturance – an ability traditionally associated with women – is a significant, negative wage predictor. Thus, even when men hold nurturing jobs, their wages are lower than they would be in comparable, but less nurturing, occupations. This suggests that much of what a teacher does – nurturing and caring – is devalued in contemporary society and that this devaluation is independent from that associated with gender, per se.

This could help explain why male teachers may not always experience what Professor Christine Williams described as the “glass escalator effect,” which basically says that “men take their gender privilege with them when they enter predominantly female occupations.”

We know that attracting more men into teaching (and striving for a more integrated labor market more generally) is not just about improved salaries. In Al’s own words:

Even after we have solved the problem of providing adequate financial rewards, we are not going to get good teachers or keep them so long as school management rewards blind obedience to authority above creativity and excellence.

Williams’ research suggests that we need to address the social and cultural sanctions applied to men who do “women’s work”, which prevent many men from even considering these occupations. But how do we do this?

Williams suggests media portrayals of men and women who pursue non-traditional careers can have some influence on shared beliefs, but this is no panacea. I agree.

In “A new Finnish Lesson: Why Gender Equality Matters in School Reform” published in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet, Pasi Sahlberg argues that “attempts to explain good educational performance in Finland fail to see the big picture.” As he explains, his country  scores highly in many international comparisons besides education; for example, “Finland is among the most equal countries […] in how women and men are empowered.”

Sahlberg argues that “gender equality is a particularly relevant variable to be included in the analysis of a country’s child welfare and education policies.” His argument is that because Finnish women are deeply involved in policy making, resulting policies are family-friendly:

Given the intimate understanding most women have of children’s needs, it stands to reason that women legislators probably make better policy for children. This is evident in not only Finland but also in its Nordic neighbors, which are likewise home to considerable female empowerment in both political and corporate spheres.

This argument, while interesting, is a little too essentialist for me. Alternatively, this is what I think might be going on: Women (and what women say, do, represent, stand for) enjoy greater status in Finnish society. Empowerment and political participation have raised the status of women in Finland across the board, which may help to explain why Finnish teachers, while still predominantly female, are more respected than in the U.S.

So, in my view, it’s not so much that women make different or better policy decisions but that when a society considers and values the decisions of women (whatever these might be) that respect trickles down to other realms, such as education, the family or the labor market.

I am not sure that “the war on teachers” is “a war on women,” but I do think that by raising the status of women we could help to raise the status of teaching – which would benefit both the young men and young women who may want to enter this profession. As Al’s stories illustrate, male teachers are just as victimized as female teachers by society’s infantilized views of teachers and teaching – driving talented individuals of both genders away from the profession.  And that doesn’t help anyone, especially not students.

- Esther Quintero

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Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. Her work focuses on highlighting research that can inform critical education issues such as eq...