Nancie Atwell, a teacher of literacy in Maine, won the Varkey Foundation’s $1 million prize as the Global Teacher of the Year. This is like the Nobel prize of teaching. She was interviewed on CNN about teaching, and she talked about encouraging children to read and write, following their interests and passions. She is donating the $1 million to her school, which needs a new furnace and other improvements. When one of the interviewers asked her what she would tell a young person interested in teaching, she said she would tell them to go into the private sector, not into public school teaching. The interviewers were taken aback. Atwell explained that the Common Core and the testing that goes with it had turned teachers into “technicians,” making it hard for them to teach the best they knew how. She would urge them to find an independent school where there is no Common Core and no state testing.”
Nancie Atwell’s comments, which any seasoned teachers and most new ones recognize as absolutely accurate, were then criticized by male teachers as either misguided or irresponsible. As in nursing, a man’s experience in a female profession is not the same, but they feel free to think it is because, well, they have de facto the right to evaluate women’s work.
Ravitch, a leading contributor to the teacher status debate, articulates perhaps more clearly than most how teaching reflects the cultural resistance to women receiving professional equality. She joins over a hundred years now in the discourse about teachers’ low and undeserved status accompanied by studied determination to keep it that way.
Why is teaching’s low status so intrinsically intractable in our culture? Because it has always been a gendered servant role. Men were only teachers until they could move on. Allowing women to teach was acknowledged as a lower cost alternative early on. We will be looking at the foundational attitudes toward teachers and why, even after severe protests and costly effects of ignoring teachers’ professional wisdom, teachers will remain a servant class.
Not only overt historical development of public education but educational reform movements and research are primarily instituted by men: men in law, men in business, men in legislatures, men in psychology, to name a few of the fields. Most of the time men who have never taught or have never taught at the level they are trying to reform. While anyone can find reams of books, articles and other materials about what should be done in education, very few materials are available on the teacher’s actual experience or on ways for teachers to have professional autonomy and authority. This is because the teacher doesn’t have time to pursue writing books and articles and developing programs because they are teaching. So the reality is not that those who can, do and those who can’t teach; the reality is that those who teach, are; and those who aren’t, study it and mandate the latest “classroom innovation”. This amounts to not much more than hubby coming home and telling wifey how she can do better. A gross simplification? Perhaps. But see if you find very many exceptions to the management of education that do not smack of this attitude.
It has been long understood that the younger the child, the more women are prevalent in their education. Women became preschool and elementary school principals earlier than at other levels. With each level up, the number of women decreased while the number of men increased, until we have many male professors studying teaching and introducing
“reforms”, which earn the college lots of positive PR, until that comes under attack and the next horse on the carousel comes around.
In subsequent posts, I will list some of the historical milestones, educational reforms, and cultural contradictions and whether or not a woman educator with experience in the classroom was the originator. Hopefully this will help demonstrate that a teacher who thinks there will be an improved status change in our country should look elsewhere for professional fulfillment. This does not negate the influence that women have made; it demonstrates that there is a foundational commitment to keeping women out of any major authority in their profession. Like nurses, we can only dispense medicine if the doctor says so. And when we begin to become doctors, the status and pay in the field decreases and the amount of oversight increases.
My hope is that those who have an opportunity, will stop burying their talents in the ground without demanding proportionate respect, acknowledgement and compensation. And if that means not teaching, it may have to. History will show that there are as many pressures to remove teachers as there are pleas for them to stay underemployed. A teacher needs to face the fact that she is disposable and will never be acknowledged in any numbers as an autonomous professional; in fact, every attempt will be made to remove her ability to made decisions about using her skills.
Atwell appears to understand this, but she still gave away the million.