American school districts have found themselves in a mad dash for solutions as the fallout from a long-predicted threat has breached their hallways, sending shockwaves through classrooms across the country. The national teacher shortage has arrived. Too many states, Minnesota included, the solution is simple: lower the strict licensing and professional requirements, thereby making it easier for individuals with technical skills and experience to transition into the classroom as educators. In a public statement last summer, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht vehemently denounced the new rules, saying “it feels like the Legislature just took those hard-earned licenses off the classroom wall and spit on them. We won’t forget this” (Wastvedt, 2017). These conflicting ideas are nothing new, but rather symptomatic of a long-running debate over teaching as a profession. While teaching lies in a sort of professional no-mans-land to much of the public, a closer look at what we expect of our teachers in comparison to other fields provides some clarity. Teaching is not a job or a skill learned by being a former student, but rather insists upon a special set of skills and ethical standards becoming of a profession in its truest sense.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention in this debate is the disconnect between what it means to be a professional, as a professional or by definition and society’s broad use of the term in its varying forms. When we interact with someone who shows confidence, integrity and shows a willingness to work hard, carrying themselves with a certain business-like demeanor, we say they behave professionally. When someone is good at what they do, even if it’s a negative trait, we call them a professional. An Australian group that calls itself the Professional Standards Council (PSC) has dedicated a lot of time to answering these questions and defining these terms. The PSC defines a profession as “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards… possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognized body of learning derived from research, education, and training at a high level, and is recognized by the public as such”. The second point of contention lies within our inherent need to compartmentalize everything in our lives, and thirdly perhaps a defensiveness over the career paths we may have chosen— perceiving any classification other than “profession” as an assault on our livelihoods and passion. If we were to apply this PSC’s definition to common jobs within the United States, careers such as police officers, firefighters, mechanics, machinists, and many jobs where training takes place in a technical, by practice, setting are no longer considered professions. Respected careers, yes, but not a profession. Clearly, by the PSC’s criteria, teaching is a profession. Even with many states lowering their standards for licensure, becoming a teacher requires a certain level of higher education, specialization, research, and training, in addition to testing, field experiences, and certifications all wrapped up in the package of a Bachelor’s degree.
An argument made, and seemingly supported by the logic spreading around our country through licensure requirement changes, is that being a professional in one area, or having a certain amount of experience in a specialization, qualifies you to be an educator. For example: having a Masters in chemistry and possessing that academic knowledge qualifies you to teach others that same knowledge. This is representative of the banking concept of education, which Paulo Freire defines as “knowledge [being] a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (Canestrari, Marlowe, & Freire, 2013). Teaching is not just a job to be filled by anyone. Though it is easy to understand the rationale behind this misconception, teaching is not all about the content— it is about humanity. Teaching, like being a doctor or lawyer, should not be about personal gain or some idea that you are doing humanity a service by sharing your personal wealth of knowledge with them. It is about connecting on a human level, building relationships, seeing the humans with real lives and real problems that sit before you and caring for them. If you cannot do that, you cannot be an effective teacher. Those are the prerequisites to learning and they must be met at some level. Teaching is a profession of human connection that is about enabling students to be resourceful, critical thinkers who can draw connections between the content in the classroom, their own lives, the conditions of society, and the world. Being an engineer may mean you are knowledgeable, but it does not qualify you to teach engineering, because being a teacher is the profession, not the specialization or higher knowledge in a content area.
Can an engineer, a chemist, or a lawyer possibly be a good teacher? Yes, but the two are independent of one another and should not be correlated in order to fix a teacher shortage. “Although these efforts may prove to be helpful, they fail to address one fundamental root of the problem: School systems need to hire teachers in great numbers only if they don’t retain enough of the well-qualified teachers they currently employ”. (Papay, J. P., Bacher-Hicks, A., Page, L. C., & Marinell, W. H, 2018). This is a problem that can only be prepared by restoring respect to the teachers who have dedicated their lives to the profession and creating an environment that people entering the workforce want to join. Respect can begin to be restored when the general public can stop qualifying teaching as just a job. Tom Rademacher writes, “but if the whole thing is just a job, if the whole thing is just a job, you’re doing it wrong. Teaching is a shitty job but a great career.” (Rademacher, 2017). Teaching, like other professions, is a lifestyle—a lifestyle that you live, not for glory, but for others. As a teacher, your students come first, always, without question. Placing the well-being and futures of other people’s children before all else hardly sounds like “just a job”, and few professions can say that they do the same.
Wastvedt, S. (2017, June 14). New rules will make teacher requirements more flexible. Retrieved January 28, 2018, from https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/06/14/new-rules-to-make-teacher-requirements-more-flexible
Papay, J. P., Bacher-Hicks, A., Page, L. C., & Marinell, W. H. (2018, January 9). America’s teacher shortage can’t be solved by hiring more unqualified teachers. Retrieved January 20, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/01/09/americas-teacher-shortage-cant-be-solved-by-hiring-more-unqualified-teachers/?utm_term=.eca47f039764
Rademacher, T., & Eggers, D. (2017). It wont be easy: an exceedingly honest (and slightly unprofessional) love letter to teaching. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
What is a profession? (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2018, from https://www.psc.gov.au/what-is-a-profession
Freire, P. (2013). Educational foundations: an anthology of critical readings(A. S. Canestrari & B. A. Marlowe, Eds.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.