01/09/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

Teachers Are Workers

Since I retired from teaching high school in the inner city, I especially look forward to holidays for getting together with former colleagues. As we teachers meet each others' partners, the ubiquitous question is "what do you do for a living?" This Christmas, our introductions led to the question of how teachers should define ourselves. My answer, as always, brought silence. We're workers, I believe. We should stop worrying about being defined as professionals. I made a lot more money as a Teamsters truck driver and, as a teacher, I was often treated like a "worm," which was my title as a rookie oilfield roughneck. I loved it, however, when my students called me "D.T.," not Dr. Thompson.

A preacher replied that he shuns robes and other trappings and that the most honorific title he accepts is that of "pastor." Preachers and teachers, fundamentally, are relationship builders and we don't need the distraction of thinking about prestige and titles.

The next day on CSPAN, Politico's Nicholas Carnes noted that the first question asked at cocktail parties is not, "what is your socio-economic status?" but "what do you do for a living?" Carnes's White Collar Government explains the crucial divide in Congress. It is a white collar body. Fewer than 2 percent of congressmen have substantial experience as blue collar workers. Carnes shows that occupational history, more than any other factor, explains how politicians view economic issues. Lawmakers who have blue collar experience hold more pro-worker beliefs and work measurably harder to advance the interests of the working class. His metrics show that they must work twice as hard to pass legislation in a Congress that is "out of step" with the interests of working peoples.

Carnes defines teachers as "service professionals," as opposed to full-fledged professionals like doctors or lawyers. His research shows that teachers and social workers identify most strongly with workers.

Carnes' research should be read in tandem with Jal Mehta's The Allure of Order. Mehta reviews the 20th century's three waves of standardized testing imposed by top-down reformers, as well as how and why they failed. Mehta argues that data-driven reform has again mandated discredited policies because respected professions "colonize" less respected professions. Since teachers are just a "semi-profession," outsiders feel entitled to micromanage us without paying attention to education research and history, or our professional judgments. The way to break out of this destructive cycle, says Mehta, is to upgrade our standards and become a full-fledged and respected profession.

I quoted Mehta at this year's Christmas party, but my fellow teachers were unimpressed. The "billionaires boys club" has treated teachers and students as lab rats, and now their ill-conceived experiments are doing their damage. In the three years since I left the classroom, the abuse piled on educators has grown far worse. My former colleagues were full of stories of the even nuttier policies that have been dumped on us. By now, conservative and liberal educators, in this get-together and in other venues across Oklahoma, say that these idiotic mandates only make sense if the true purpose of reform is privatization of public schools.

Teaching is an act of love, not something that can be accurately measured and rewarded by the elites. Teaching should be a team effort. "Professional" educators are no more worthy than bus drivers, lunchroom workers, and other mentors who help children grow into educated, healthy, responsible adults. All too often we perform the services of social workers, mental health counselors, police officers, nurses, and paramedics. All of those duties require verbal acuity, book smarts, and hard-earned lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Our state's motto is "labor conquers all." Words, however, will not bring us respect. Perhaps, our actions can change the way that some of the elites behave, and maybe even feel, towards us. Regardless, with the poor and working people, we must take our stand.

I just can't see personal or political benefits of trying to get the powerful to see us as professionals. The way we are viewed from above is a small concern in comparison to the way so many other workers and children are treated. Why should we worry about the name given to our position in the team effort known as teaching and learning? Those who preach, who coach, and who teach by sharing of themselves are teachers. Those who pass on lessons learned through the schools of hard knocks are teachers. We are all workers who must join as equals in fighting for democratic and uplifting school cultures and humane workplaces.