Is the Teaching Profession Dead?

03/14/2012 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2012

When I've studied the issue of who chooses to teach and why, its status as a profession always comes up. In case you haven't noticed, teachers as a whole are not taken very seriously these days. Teaching as a respected profession has been on life support for quite some time. Current so-called reformers appear poised to finally pull the plug once and for all.

Teaching is and should ideally be viewed as an intellectual profession. As such, educators should challenge conventional wisdom and encourage students to do the same. I recently called into question my own dual role as an educator and activist, rethinking how I negotiate the fine line between them. Someone whom I respect greatly suggested that I read Representations of the Intellectual by Edward Said to understand this struggle. A particular passage resonated with me that I think applies to educators of all kinds:

The fact is that the intellectual ought neither to be so uncontroversial and safe a figure as to be just a friendly technician nor should the intellectual try to be a full-time Cassandra, who was not only righteously unpleasant but also unheard. Every human being is held in by a society, no matter how free and open the society, no matter how bohemian the individual... In any case, the intellectual is supposed to be heard from, and in practice ought to be stirring up debate and if possible controversy. But the alternatives are not total quiescence or total rebelliousness (p. 89).

One big problem with the debate on education reform is the tendency to trample nuance and force people into two exclusive and competing categories: reform versus status quo. The reform camp on one side is pushing a very specific vision of change in education based on a particular ideology. Those on the other side, typically classroom teachers and their oft-criticized unions, possess their own ideologies. Yet, they are erroneously tagged as pro status quo only because of resistance to the prevailing reformers' arguments. And status quo is used as a derogatory term in the reform debate.

In reality, solutions likely rest in those in-between spaces, which is suggested by the first part of Said's above quote. Teachers are reluctant to participate in reform debates because any resistance is mistakenly viewed as outright revolt. Although, teachers don't seem too shy with lodging complaints in staff lounges and workrooms about testing, lack of resources, or parental support, for example. When the rare opportunity to speak truth to power arrives, all we hear are crickets.

The last part of Said's words above suggests that educators who do not question or critique are totally abandoning a significant professional and ethical responsibility. Moreover, those that discourage dissent are denying educators an important part of their job. All of this assumes that teachers are intellectuals and education is at all levels an intellectual profession. Now, I'm not so sure.

To revisit the question that titles this post: is the teaching profession dead? I'm pretty close to admitting that it is indeed dead, or at the very least so deprived of intellectual and professional vigor that it cannot possibly recover. Teaching is now closer to a vocation than a profession; a teacher is what Said calls the "friendly technician." I'm disappointed. I mean: I don't have a problem with vocations, per se. But educators, man, I expected something a bit more from them.