I have a young daughter who, at age 11, is starting to think about her career interests. As we go back and forth over potential pathways for her, I am reminded of a discussion I had in class not long ago regarding the teaching profession and its historical challenges of gender and racial equality. Dana Goldstein (2014) writes about this issue more poignantly than anything I could ever pen, and the connections she makes between controversies then and now are more timely in 2020 than even in 2014, when she wrote her famous book, The Teacher Wars. So, are teachers, as Goldstein suggests, engaged in the most embattled profession? Certainly, as 2020 has unfolded, we see there are several occupations that find themselves in the crosshairs of public opinion. And, while we bear witness to a renewed appreciation for the teaching profession, it should not be lost on us of just how mercurial the view of that job has been over time.
Political and social discourse in the United States in the 1800s was primarily driven by issues of gender equality, funding, the role of education, and a low overall attitude of and toward the teaching profession.
In 1837, State Senator Horace Mann moved legislation to create the Massachusetts State Board of Education (later becoming its first Secretary) and required "compulsory enrollment for all children" (Goldstein, 2014, p.23) - a clear acknowledgment by the state of their commitment to education and to ensure its long-term success. However, only half of the requested funding was appropriated to fund the initiative (Goldstein, 2014). This public policy theme of education juxtaposed against inadequate resources will reappear regularly throughout the next century and to this very day.
More historically poignant than school funding in the 1800s, however, is the increased influence of women during this time and their battles to achieve relevancy and respect. Key among the female revolutionaries of this time was Catharine Beecher. In 1822, inspired by the lesson plans and volumes of notes of her deceased fiancée, Beecher embraced a vision that included the broad, intellectual education of females and the introduction of women as classroom leaders (Goldstein, 2014).
In a socially hostile environment in which conventional wisdom held that "the only reason for a girl to go to school was to refine her deportment to snare a husband" (Goldstein, 2014, p.19), Beecher created the Hartford Female Seminary, which provided a robust and intellectually progressive curriculum for females.
Leveraging the notoriety that came with the Hartford school's success, Beecher then went on a mission to integrate women into co-ed teaching. Using a two-pronged messaging approach that addressed the societal benefits of focusing men on manufacturing and production occupations with lower-paid female teachers' cost-savings, Beecher inspired a dramatic shift in the classroom instruction model (Goldstein, 2014, p.22). By appealing to the public purse-strings and their natural, maternal disposition, women became a powerhouse in the field (Goldstein, 2014, p.43).
However, I would also argue that it is at this exact point – with her argument that women could be hired for far less money – where the precedent was set in which teachers' salaries would become our country's value proposition of the profession, setting in motion a century-long battle for relevancy and worth.
As teachers began to battle for more money, they quickly encountered increased scrutiny and performance measures. For instance, in 1923, William McAndrew became the new superintendent of the Chicago City School District and, at the behest of Mayor William Dever, introduced several new concepts to cut costs, measure teacher performance, and streamline education delivery (Goldstein, 2014, p.86).
Armed with practices refined in "scientific management" (Goldstein, 2014, p.86) and other manufacturing efficiency models, McAndrew quickly initiated teacher evaluation metrics designed to "root out and fire inefficient teachers" (Goldstein, 2014, p.87). So, too, did he install policies that eliminated teacher input on district-level decisions and separated students into vocational or academic tracks based on standardized testing results (Goldstein, 2014, p.87).
The result of these proposals by McAndrew did not save any money or generate any efficiencies. Instead, they fueled a very public and political battle, which he lost at the hands of organized labor. The Illinois State Federation of Labor, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the American Federation of Labor, seizing on an "America First" (Goldstein, 2014, p.89) campaign, removed both Dever and McAndrew from office.
Although successful and pragmatic, that victory set a political precedent in which lobbying efforts on either side of an education issue (including funding) became driven more by ideology than student success.
Whether you apply the definition as "engaged in battle" or "characterized by conflict or controversy" (Embattled, n.d.), the teaching profession is an embattled one. Are they the most embattled profession? Given the battles the job has over funding, gender and racial equity, performance measures, and public and political scrutiny, perhaps the only profession more embattled (in 2020, anyway) is that of a police officer, a congressperson in a swing district, or the United States president.
Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars. New York, NY: Anchor Books
Embattled. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/embattled