Teacher Appreciation? Treat Teachers like Doctors

In the United States — as in many cultures around the world — doctors hold a highly esteemed position. It is a career that is not only well-paid, but also well-respected by society as a whole.

All of this is well-deserved!  Doctors are very important people: staying healthy and alive are… well… essential for survival. Obviously, it is very important to have people who are knowledgable and well-versed in examination, analysis, identification, and treatment of an ailment. Without them, we would not survive nearly as well.

You know what else is essential for survival? Education. This has been a fact for humans (and even other animals, who often learn survival skills from their parents) since the dawn of time. As we encountered problems, we had to learn the most effective ways to solve them — from banging rocks together to make them sharper, to discovering beneficial vs. dangerous plants, to eventually finding ways to share this information and pass it down via language and writing (because even early civilizations knew how important education is.)

And here’s some fun food for thought: without education, there would not be doctors!

So… why aren’t teachers regarded the same way by society as doctors are? Why are they frowned upon as a “second class” citizen — somewhere above fry-cook but below lawyers, doctors, engineers, businesspeople, and a slew of other jobs.  And that’s at best, when they aren’t being outright vilified as the root of (or, at least, an ineffectual cure for) our society’s problems.  As a teacher, I generally feel like I am “looked down upon” — looked down upon by my wealthier friends who make a higher salary than I do, because my income must make me a “less valuable person”; looked down upon by people who think I must be an “incompetent” person because “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”; and looked down upon even by people who “admire” (or pity) me… some family members have even referred to me as a “philanthropist.” (That sounds like a positive comment; it wasn’t.)

I was never regarded in these ways when my primary occupation was a software engineer. I was considered “intelligent” and “successful” — someone to be respected.  Yet I was the same person, doing a job that was no more important — nor any more difficult — than teaching.

I believe the problem lies partly in a false rhetoric that has been created: that education and learning are as simple as “just identify the problem and fix it.”  In other words, a resounding school of thought is that, basically, teachers are mechanics. If we’re professionals, we should just be able to figure out what “part” is missing from a child’s knowledge, and add it, right?  Simple as swapping a carburetor…

Only… people are not machines. They are human beings — perhaps the most complex “machines” in existence. And knowledge of fixing them doesn’t boil down to knowing the ins-and-outs of several different makes and models.  Essentially, every person is a different make/model.  Imagine how difficult it would be for a mechanic if every single car they worked on was different and unique!

Still want to blame teachers when education is broken and learning doesn’t happen? Then let’s consider some more facts…

Unlike fixing a car, “fixing” a person’s knowledge is also not a “one-way system.” For auto mechanics (and computer programmers, and a slew of other professions), all power for success is in the hands of one party: the mechanic/programmer/engineer/etc.  The mechanic does not order a muffler, hand it to the car, and say “fix yourself.”

But in education, that’s exactly what has to happen.  Learning requires two parties: the deliverer (teacher), and the recipient (student.) Both of these parties are responsible for fulfilling their roles to make learning happen. The teacher has to (a) manage a classroom, creating an environment and controlling behaviors of a group of people to an extent that learning can occur; (b) analyze and identify where gaps in knowledge exist; (c) prescribe a solution (instructions, lessons, activities, practice) that will fill that gap in knowledge.  The student, however, also has to (a) follow the “prescription” of tasks assigned by the teacher, and (b) nope, that’s about it.  But it does mean that the student has to do something — it’s not all up to the teacher.

In other words, if being a teacher were the same as being a mechanic… the car would have to do its part to help “fix itself.”  What if the mechanic successfully pinpoints a problem, orders the right part… but then Herbie the Love Bug refuses to use it?  This is what educators face every day, if they identify a gap in student knowledge, prescribe a task or activity that will solve that gap and cause learning to occur, and then students choose not to obey that instruction or put in an effort. [Teaching may be the only profession I can think of where you are a Manager of a group of workers, yet have no choice in who was hired, and have no way to fire them if they do no work.]

And yet… teachers are the ones held accountable, as if they are the sole party with the power to “make learning happen.”

But teachers are not mechanics. They are doctors. They are doctors of the mind. Teaching is — quite literally — a branch of psychology (the psychology of learning, and really more than that; it’s a combination of cognitive and behavioral sciences, with some sociology thrown in, because it’s about both behavioral and group management — like business psychology — as well as learning.)

Like doctors, teachers identify a problem, and then prescribe a remedy. So… what if a doctor correctly diagnoses an illness, and prescribes an appropriate remedy accordingly? Do we hold a doctor liable if her patients refuse to take the prescribed medication, and end up dying? Do we hold a doctor liable if he tells his patient to stop drinking alcohol, and the patient refuses and ends up with cirrhosis? No?

Then why are teachers held accountable for:

  • poor home life conditions or lack of good parenting;
  • students not getting enough sleep or eating nutritious food (both of which affect thinking ability and behaviors);
  • or students simply not even trying, and not doing the work that is “prescribed” for them to learn

Why, when test scores are low, is it automatically “the teacher’s fault”? Do doctors get blamed if their patients don’t take the medicine? Do they get offered “merit pay” if their patients do? Nope, because it is patently absurd.

Why aren’t teachers treated like doctors?

I’m not asking for teachers to get paid the same as doctors.  All I’m asking is for a little respect, some understanding of what education actually entails, and a recognition that teaching is a challenging — and very important — job.

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