That's Not Teacher-Like

I’ve been reading Albert Shanker’s “The Power of Ideas: Al In His Own Words," the American Educator’s compendium of Al’s speeches and columns, published posthumously in 1997. What an enjoyable, witty and informative collection of essays.

Two columns especially caught my attention: “That’s Very Unprofessional Mr. Shanker!" and “Does Pavarotti Need to File an Aria Plan” – where Al discusses expectations for (and treatment of) teachers. They made me reflect, yet again, on whether perceptions of teacher professionalism might be gendered. In other words, when society thinks of the attributes of a professional teacher, might we unconsciously be thinking of women teachers? And, if so, why might this be important?

In “That’s Very Unprofessional, Mr. Shanker!" Al writes:

The word professional was often used then to beat teachers down or keep them in line. I can remember my first exposure to it as a teacher. I started in a very tough elementary school in New York City and had great doubts that I would make it; the three teachers who had preceded me that year with my sixth-grade class had not.

After a couple of weeks, the assistant principal appeared at my classroom door. I remember thinking, “Thank God! Help has come." I motioned him in, but he stood there for what seemed like a very long time, pointing at something. Finally, he said, “Mr. Shanker, I see a lot of paper on the floor in the third aisle. It’s very unsightly and very unprofessional." Then the door closed and he left.

So to be neat, as opposed to “unsightly” or messy, is what is expected from the ideal teacher. Messiness is not teacher-like. But there’s more:
Soon after that, I went to my first faculty meeting. In those days, not many men taught in grades K-8; there was only one other male teacher in my school. The principal distributed the organizational chart of the school with a schedule of duties—who had hall patrol, lunch patrol, and so forth, including “snow patrol." By tradition, snow patrol, which involved giving up lunch period and walking around outside warning kids not to throw snowballs at each other, was a job for a male teacher. And, sure enough, Mr. Jones and Mr. Shanker found themselves assigned to it. Mr. Jones raised his hand and asked, “Now that there are two men on the faculty to handle snow patrol, would it be okay to rotate—you know, the first day of snow, he goes and the next day I go?" The principal frowned at him and replied, “Mr. Jones, that is very unprofessional. First of all, the duty schedule has already been mimeographed, as you see. Secondly, I am surprised that you aren’t concerned that one child might throw a snowball at another, hit him in the eye, and do permanent damage. It’s very unprofessional of you."
So making perfectly reasonable suggestions about the organization of one’s own work assignments (i.e., taking turns to do snow patrol, so that kids are supervised but only one teacher at time has to give up his lunch break), is viewed as evidence of selfishness and lack of professionalism. Definitely not teacher-like.

In a second column with the hilarious title “Does Pavarotti Have to File an Aria Plan?", Shanker makes a related point. While he strongly advocates competitive salaries for teachers, he is aware that higher compensation alone isn’t enough to attract and retain enough talented young people into the teaching force:

Aside from money, the other big issue is the way teachers are treated by their supervisors. In many ways they are treated like children.

One example is the practice of requiring teachers to prepare lock-step lesson plans. New York City high school teachers are in a state of great demoralization because most principals require them to prepare detailed plans written according to a particular management-by-objectives approach. This is another clerical chore, another time-consuming ritual.

Of course, teachers need to plan, and most of them do, in their way, especially at the high school level. But does every teacher have to do the same amount of planning and in the same format? Do all the plans have to be inspected on the same morning? But, more important, what are plans for? They are supposed to help teachers improve their instruction. But now, in many of our schools, teachers are not given a satisfactory rating, no matter how good they are as teachers, unless they have complied with the ritualistic plan book requirements. This is clear management incompetence. Would anybody rate Pavarotti a poor opera singer because he failed to fill out bureaucratic forms telling management how he intends to approach each aria?

Here, interpreting the rules more flexibly (by not submitting lesson plans written in a specific way at a specific time) can translate into penalties for teachers, “no matter how good they are as teachers." Compliance is rewarded; independence and autonomy are not teacher-like.

So what have we learned from these anecdotes, so far?

To be deemed professional, teachers must be neat, passive, selfless, and compliant. Sound familiar? These are all traits associated with traditional views of women.

Some time ago, psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske coined the term "benevolent sexism" to refer to the idea that women are often treated in a manner that appears positive but isn’t – e.g., treating women like children. Are teachers as a group viewed and treated like children because the teacher workforce is predominantly female? Research on this suggests that that is one reason, but not the only reason.

Two studies (also here) with nationally representative data have shown that, controlling for education, experience, and the sex of the jobholder, the extent to which a job requires nurturance – an ability traditionally associated with women – is a significant, negative wage predictor. Thus, even when men hold nurturing jobs, their wages are lower than they would be in comparable, but less nurturing, occupations. This suggests that much of what a teacher does – nurturing and caring – is devalued in contemporary society and that this devaluation is independent from that associated with gender, per se.

This could help explain why male teachers may not always experience what Professor Christine Williams described as the "glass escalator effect," which basically says that “men take their gender privilege with them when they enter predominantly female occupations."

We know that attracting more men into teaching (and striving for a more integrated labor market more generally) is not just about improved salaries. In Al’s own words:

Even after we have solved the problem of providing adequate financial rewards, we are not going to get good teachers or keep them so long as school management rewards blind obedience to authority above creativity and excellence.
Williams’ research suggests that we need to address the social and cultural sanctions applied to men who do "women's work", which prevent many men from even considering these occupations. But how do we do this?

Williams suggests media portrayals of men and women who pursue non-traditional careers can have some influence on shared beliefs, but this is no panacea. I agree.

In “A new Finnish Lesson: Why Gender Equality Matters in School Reform” published in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet, Pasi Sahlberg argues that “attempts to explain good educational performance in Finland fail to see the big picture." As he explains, his country  scores highly in many international comparisons besides education; for example, “Finland is among the most equal countries […] in how women and men are empowered."

Sahlberg argues that “gender equality is a particularly relevant variable to be included in the analysis of a country’s child welfare and education policies." His argument is that because Finnish women are deeply involved in policy making, resulting policies are family-friendly:

Given the intimate understanding most women have of children’s needs, it stands to reason that women legislators probably make better policy for children. This is evident in not only Finland but also in its Nordic neighbors, which are likewise home to considerable female empowerment in both political and corporate spheres.
This argument, while interesting, is a little too essentialist for me. Alternatively, this is what I think might be going on: Women (and what women say, do, represent, stand for) enjoy greater status in Finnish society. Empowerment and political participation have raised the status of women in Finland across the board, which may help to explain why Finnish teachers, while still predominantly female, are more respected than in the U.S.

So, in my view, it’s not so much that women make different or better policy decisions but that when a society considers and values the decisions of women (whatever these might be) that respect trickles down to other realms, such as education, the family or the labor market.

I am not sure that “the war on teachers” is “a war on women," but I do think that by raising the status of women we could help to raise the status of teaching – which would benefit both the young men and young women who may want to enter this profession. As Al’s stories illustrate, male teachers are just as victimized as female teachers by society’s infantilized views of teachers and teaching – driving talented individuals of both genders away from the profession.  And that doesn’t help anyone, especially not students.

- Esther Quintero


It's one of the first things you notice when you become a teacher after being a professional in another field, the lack of being treated professionally. The attitude displayed is it's almost a given teachers will not behave professionally unless forced to do so and as you note the meaning of professional can depend on the administrator in charge as well as the teacher's level of obedience and cheerfulness in which that obedience is carried out.

When teachers resist the newest reform, their concerns are rarely appreciated. Compliance is the expectation. This attitude does not create an atmosphere that promotes creativity. The irony is that while schools have pushed teachers to develop multiple lesson plans of a single lesson for the variety of student learning styles, schools have also pushed to standardize more and more of what a teacher does such as common assessments, lesson plans, and calendars.

It's a further irony that over the last ten years as reform efforts have targeted making teachers more accountable for student outcomes from the outside, teachers have become more limited in how they can manage their own classrooms to produce those outcomes from the inside.


Scott E makes some valid points in his response to the article and I agree. I was in the teaching profession for the past 17 years and have recently moved to the area of writing curriculum. It has taken months for me to adjust to the freedoms and opportunities afforded to "real" professionals. I could and would have stayed longer if I had more rights as a teacher than a student, but that was not the case. To quote from the 1955 movie, "Blackboard Jungle," "I know I have no rights as teacher, but do I have any rights as a human?"


Scott and LeAnn,

Thank you for your comments, they are much appreciated.

What do you think would be steps (no matter how small) to improve this situation? People talk about raising the status of teaching or increasing teacher autonomy. But I often wonder, what might that involve specifically?



In a sense, I would echo what Education Realist said, but say it it this way. By and large, teachers don't run schools. It might even be argued teachers don't really have autonomy within a classroom. So, why all the anger aimed at teachers and not anyone else in the educational system?

If the starting point of the conversation is teachers are the problem, it should be no surprise their status has declined. Further note how narrow that conversation is. It's all about testing and teacher accountability. The conversation waves away with phrases like "unobservable poor teaching practices" any attempt to look at why the educational system as a whole might inhibit or support better learning outcomes. It waves away the role financing plays in those outcomes. And it waves away the idea that if educating children requires a teacher to be Superman, there is something fundamentally wrong about what we believe our schools need or should be.

We need to change that conversation. Talk about giving teachers a greater roll in actually running their schools instead of further widening the gap between the roles of teachers and administrators. The conversation needs to be about how or why teachers may struggle and how the system can be changed to improve their efforts instead of talking about to what degree a single test result tells us whether or not a teacher should be fired.

The conversation about teacher's unions needs to change. The whole of that conversation seems to be teacher's unions are bad and all they do is protect incompetent teachers. We need teacher's unions to talk more about how they really protect and support the efforts of teachers.

We need to stop the false dichotomy that what's good for teachers is bad for children or that what's good for children is bad for teachers. And we need to stop waving away the reality that the people who promote such dichotomies have their own agendas that have little to do with improving our educational system, that in fact will profit from the making teachers, their unions, and our educational system as whole appear as dysfunctional as possible.