Teacher Appreciation Week was celebrated recently in America’s schools and school systems. It represents one of a long list of “appreciation” occasions, celebrating school professionals.
January – National School Board Appreciation month, February 22 – School bus driver day,
February 7-11 – School Counselor appreciation week, March 4 – National Social Worker day,
April 4-8 – National Assistant Principal week, April 6 – Paraprofessional educators’ day, May 1 – School Principal appreciation day, May 2-6 – Teacher appreciation week, May 18 – Speech Pathologist appreciation day. And there are others. (I never understood why school principals only deserve a single day of recognition, while other categories of school professionals warrant a week, or a month. Alas.)
The point of this calendar of appreciation is to acknowledge the essential contributions of school personnel in the safe and appropriate education of our children. I confess that, as principal, I didn’t honor each employee category separately. That felt counter to our goal of serving kids and families as a unified and collaborative unit. Consequently, we’d go all out to promote Staff Appreciation week, usually coinciding with the week designated for teachers.
It is curious to me that there is this public effort to celebrate educational professionals, when in fact many feel that they are not perceived as, or being treated as, professionals.
So that we can be clear on semantics, I’ll operate from this simple definition of profession: “A paid occupation that involves prolonged training and formal qualifications.” A “professional” is any individual who operates within this definition. In our current emotional, moral and political climate, questioning whether teachers and other education personnel are truly professional is gaining momentum.
We are being treated to raging debates in state houses and board rooms about whether educators are guilty of politicizing the content being taught. There is skepticism in conservative-leaning communities, if not fear, that if students are exposed to the frequently difficult realities of our history, they will be directed to feel blame, shame and remorse for our country’s past. Lost in this discussion is whether kids deserve to know the truth from which to construct their understanding. In my humble, though accurate, opinion the truth is not political. Ignoring it or twisting it into fables is.
A conservative candidate for governor of my state has a repeated television ad that suggests the following for education: “Let’s get back to basics and keep politics out of the classroom. Let’s teach kids how to think, rather than what to think.” As a tool to promote this aim, she advocates her platform of “parental rights.” This, too, is a popular enterprise in the ongoing criticism of American educators; advocating scrutiny of curriculum, opting out of certain subjects that parents deem harmful, and even suing school officials if they act in ways care givers find egregious.
Should parents be involved in the education of their children? Absolutely! In partnership with educators, not as their adversary.
By the way, Ms. candidate for governor, teaching kids how to think requires their exposure to the truth. Because “back to basics” involves far more the “three Rs” (reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic”) in an effective 21st century educational experience. Basics now must include analysis, discernment, critical thinking, problem solving and empathy. We can’t get there without the truth.
All of this has created a moment of crisis. Consider these wake-up calls: The number of college students majoring in education as a career path has declined 30% over the last decade. A 2021 survey conducted by Education Week revealed that more than half of American teachers are contemplating leaving the profession within the next two years. This finding is consistent with a poll of its members conducted earlier this year by the National Education Association. From my experience, the professionals most inclined to consider and execute an exit are the very ones the systems need most to retain: bright, frequently young, creative and innovative practitioners. What a loss.
This crisis, this dilemma is unsustainable.
Digging a little deeper in this teacher attrition data dispels some myths while highlighting some key concerns. Teachers are not considering a career change because of pay structures. They knew education was not a pathway to riches when they signed on. Nor do these decisions appear to be about a change, or lack thereof, in their continued belief that they could have a positive impact on the lives of kids and prepare them for successful futures. Easily, we could point to the pandemic as a potential cause for disillusionment. While it clearly threw a kink in what they were expecting, 50% of teachers are not considering a departure because of their experiences with the uncertainties of digital or hybrid instruction. The cause for this potential exodus, the polls reveal, has most to do with working conditions, with operating in a standardized testing environment, with a perceived lack of support and not being treated as professionals.
To address the underlying question, is the field of education a profession? Are those individuals who toil within it professionals? Measured against my initial definition, here’s what we see:
· Practitioners have engaged in rigorous, specialized training. Many have become content specialists in one or more areas of expertise.
· Practitioners have acquired specific skills, including what constitutes best instructional practices.
· Practitioners operate within a code of ethics.
· Many practitioners must be licensed by their state or jurisdiction to practice, frequently requiring an advanced degree from a recognized institution.
· Practitioners share an understanding of how children learn and develop.
The folks I have described are indeed professionals engaged in the professional field of education.
A disconnect exists here. American educators clearly meet the requirements of professionals within a profession. While educators are highly regarded, if not revered, in many modern nations, American educators hold a perception that they do not enjoy similar status. To understand the possible validity of this perception, I went to the 2018 Global Teacher Status index, compiled and reported by the Varkey Foundation. In this study, people from 35 countries were asked about the social status, levels of respect and trust, and general regard toward professional educators. Based on the responses, countries were awarded an index score out of a possible 100. The top five countries, where educators enjoyed the highest levels of respect and status were: China (100), Malaysia (93.3), Taiwan (70.2), Russia (65) and Indonesia (62.1).
Where’s the United States in this ranking? Barely in the top half of nations, ranked at 16/35 with an index score of 39.7.
If you’re curious, the five lowest indexed countries in this study were: Argentina (23.6), Ghana (18.9), Italy (13.6), Israel (6.6) and Brazil (1).
Other studies released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveal extremely high levels of public respect for educators not only in China, but also in Greece, Turkey and South Korea. The countries with the greatest degree of faith and confidence in their overall education systems were Finland, Switzerland and Singapore.
So, what should all of this be telling us? What does it mean when our highly trained and competent American educational workforce feels unappreciated? What are the implications of a political climate that questions the professional expertise and the intentions of this workforce? It comes down to this. The restoration of trust.
When I visit my physician, I trust that he will apply his training and expertise, coupled with my best interests, in prescribing a correction for my malady. (I may have questions, but I don’t second guess him. I trust him.)
When I consult my attorney, I trust that he will apply his training and expertise, coupled with my best interests, in resolving a legal dilemma. (I may have questions, but I don’t second guess him. I trust him.)
When I consult my tax accountant, I trust that she will apply her training and expertise, coupled with my best interests, in completing an accurate return. (I may have questions, but I don’t second guess her. I trust her.)
When we send our nation’s children into our community schools, we must TRUST that the professional educators inside will apply their training and expertise, coupled with what is in the best interests of each child, in providing them The Education Kids Deserve.
Asking questions is always appropriate. But, second guessing is unnecessary if trust is in place.Teacher