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Media, society stigmatize teaching profession

Tufts education lecturers defend the profession

Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 08:03

In today's society, the common saying "those who can't do, teach," seems to exemplify the opinion toward public school teachers — that the work they do isn't intellectually challenging. This often results in a lack of respect for public school teachers as opposed to university professors who, while also teachers, command a great deal more respect in the academic community. While the stigmatization of the profession is not a given across the country, it certainly molds public opinion and perhaps the future crop of public school teachers.

Despite current opinion, the profession was not always regarded with a lack of respect, according to Lecturer of Education Martha Tucker. "In our history, teaching, if not revered, was highly respected," she said.

Tucker, who began her teaching career in 1969 and was a middle and high school teacher for 13 years, added that she witnessed the beginning of the decline of respect.

Lecturer of Education Steven Cohen agreed that over the past few decades, the profession has faced a lot of opposition. "There's been a 20− to 30−year period in which education has been downgraded and attacked," he said.

A factor that may be responsible for society's decline in respect for public school teachers is the unionization of education, according to Tucker. Since unions shape the status of the represented profession in the public eye, she said, the creation of teacher unions has drastically affected public perception of their work.

"Unions have made [teachers] appear more like laborers than professionals," Tucker said. In the same vein, she explained that the media frames much of the public perception of teaching, referencing an advertisement featuring a teacher wearing a dunce cap.

Tucker disagreed with the common notion promulgated by the media that the achievement gap in educational measures would be closed if the United States had better teachers. The media's negative portrayal of teachers, however, still begs the question as to why it is OK to paint teachers in this light. Tucker believes that a lot of it has to do with a public misconception of what being a teacher entails.

What may be invisible to the public is the intellectual challenge of teaching, Tucker explained.

"I think that people think it's not that hard to be a teacher," she said. "One of the things we emphasize here is that teaching is intellectual work, it's not babysitting. I don't think the public really sees that."

Cohen, who has taught in both public and private schools, agreed that for the most part, the public thinks that teachers have it easy, getting off in the summer and leaving work by 3 p.m.

"You can't do the job if you're leaving at 2:30," he said. "If they're serious about teaching, there's so much to do and so much to plan."

The intellectual work of education is the invisible part of the job, which is why the public may have such a hard time appreciating the teaching profession, according to Cohen.

"[Teachers are] structuring a learning environment for students and people can't see what you're building," he said.

Perhaps another reason for the perceived lack of prestige associated with public teaching jobs is the difference in educational requirements to become a public school teacher as opposed to a university professor.

Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler explained the basic requirements to be hired as a professor at Tufts.

"Generally, peer−recognized expertise in one's field of study or practice along with achievement of the field's highest terminal degree, for example a doctorate, are basic prerequisites to hold an academic appointment," she said in an email.

This is in stark contrast to the general requirements needed in order to receive a teaching certificate, a prerequisite to be hired as a public school teacher, according to Tucker.

The disparity in required education is certainly a factor in the prestige associated with each profession, and the difference in respect is obvious to Cohen. "Clearly, the status of teaching in the university is incomparable to [high schools]," he said.

While there are undeniably skilled educators in the world of public education, the environment does not foster the development of those who may not come into the profession with natural talent, according to Tucker.

"I don't think the way schools are structured necessarily cultivates or stimulates mental activity," she said. "Any job should challenge you mentally otherwise you get kind of blase about it."

For Cohen, experience seems to be the key to making a better teacher, as they are constantly learning just as much as their students are. "I think any teacher will tell you they learn a whole lot more than their students," he said.

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