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Why Teachers Aren’t Professionals

July 22, 2011

“A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty.”

The above definition comes from a recent Washington Post article by Howard Gardner. The crux of Mr. Gardner’s column is that America’s education system is flawed primarily because teachers are not considered professionals on the same level as doctors, lawyers, etc. When making this comparison, the obvious example that comes to mind is salary. But Mr. Gardner touches on a less tangible point that is quite interesting.

Again, to quote Gardner’s article, “Just as we would like our doctors and lawyers to behave professionally, we should want the teachers of our children to behave like professionals as well. But it’s hardly a secret that many of our teachers do not consider themselves, and are not treated, as such.”

What a subtle observation with profound importance. Sure, if teachers were paid more, they would be recognized more as legitimate professionals. But it’s deeper than that. It’s psychological, too.

Take another look at the last sentence quoted above (“teachers do not consider themselves, and are not treated, as [professionals]”). This observation supports a proven theory of psychology. It’s called the consistency principle, which states that people will subconsciously act in accordance with a belief simply to remain consistent with what is expected of them, both internally and externally.

So, what Mr. Gardner alludes to in his article is that the American education system subconsciously suffers from a debilitating case of the consistency principle. The public doesn’t consider teachers high-end professionals, so they don’t feel, or act like high-end professionals. You don’t see 3rd grade teachers revered like Fortune 500 CEOs because that would be inconsistent with our society’s expectations of each profession (or more appropriately, inconsistent with expectations of our own goals).

Of course, paying our primary school teachers a six-figure salary would help bridge this gap, but that’s unrealistic. A more cost effective way to raise the professional prestige of being a teacher is to treat them with more professional respect. In this country built on free market capitalism, it’s all about the money. But even more desired than the green is respect and prestige. The question is how can a teacher earn one without the other?

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