Mike—a regular reader who frequently comments—-made this intriguing comparison while responding to my recent post on defining a profession:
Familiarity also plays a damaging role [in the professional standing of teachers.] Take the lowly guitar. It is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play and there are hundreds of millions in circulation. In fact, it’s possible to teach yourself, yet it remains one of the most difficult instruments to play well. But its very familiarity tends to devalue it and those who play it in the minds of the public.
I am professional. classically trained musician, primarily a first tenor, but I’m also a skilled guitarist. I’ve learned over they years never to leave my guitars unattended, even when I’m performing in the pit orchestra of a production of a Broadway musical (not on Broadway, by the way).
Because people will simply pluck my $1800.00 guitar off its stand and start to try to strum it. They would never think of doing the same with a french horn or an oboe, but they’ll do it with a guitar every time. Not only that, they’ll be annoyed when I ask them not to do it. Familiarity. One guitar is like another to them.
The same is true with teaching. Every American takes education for granted, or at least they take for granted that a free public education will be provided for them and that certified teachers will be present in every classroom. Because most Americans have been in school for at least 12 years, they feel that they have a good handle on the entire education process.
They don’t feel the same way about medicine, law or plumbing.
They have a sense of what a good teacher is and what a bad teacher is. They know what they found boring and what they found valuable. They felt that some tests were easy and some hard. But can they explain, in meaningful ways, why any of this is true? Do they fully understand why a good teacher makes it look so easy? No, yet they feel that they know education because they’ve shared the experience.
Dan Lortie made many of these same observations in his 1975 classic, Schoolteacher. Perceived transparency, he argues, is one of the single greatest barriers to professionalism in education. Everyone believes that they "know" education because of their time spent in classrooms. What they don’t see is the nuanced decisions that are almost second nature to our most accomplished educators or the hours invested into designing and evaluating instruction that goes on outside of the classroom.
So I guess the critical question for those of us who believe that teaching is a true profession becomes how can we best educate the general public about what it is that we know and can do? How do we lift the curtain and reveal the complexities of our profession? What are the key misconceptions that must be corrected before others will respect us as the professionals that we claim we want to be?
And remember—we’ve got to provide concrete and practical examples! All too often, we rely on mysticism when defining accomplishment. We cheapen our position when we argue that good teaching is an innate trait that can be easily explained.
While good teaching might not be easily explained, we’ve got to start providing some explanations!