Can Teaching Follow Medicine’s Prescription?

Ron Thorpe recently published a provocative piece in Phi Delta Kappan where he outlined key components for a plan to fully professionalize teaching in America. His proposals are highlighted by extended residencies for preservice teachers, and a pathway that leads all educators towards advanced certification. Personally, I believe that he makes a highly convincing case about what is missing in our field. Subsequently, Gallup released a powerful poll that showed overwhelming public sentiment for advanced certification for educators, much like what is found in the medical and legal fields. At nearly 80% support, it’s as close to a mandate as we are likely to see in any public opinion poll.

These days, you’re likely to get a 50/50 split if you ask respondents if wheels should be round.

As someone who believes passionately in the power of teachers, and has witnessed talent and dedication well above a five-figure pay grade, I believe that our failure to fully professionalize the field is what prevents those teachers from what they deserve: true respect, professional support, and fair compensation. Unfortunately, the echoes of some of the social media chatter surrounding the aforementioned articles and polls represent our problem in advancing the field and, if the sentiment is allowed to prevail, will guarantee that teachers continue to be undervalued and underappreciated for yet another generation.

Predictably, counters to the suggestion of residency and advanced certification always include the question, “Does that mean we’re going to get paid like a doctor or a lawyer?”  I am assuming the question to be rhetorical, and it always contains just a hint of sarcasm. However, my response does not.

Well, yes. But, it may depend on what you mean by “we.”

Mr. Thorpe effectively outlines the parallels to the medical field, and although there are certainly  differences in the career paths that are intrinsic to the two professions, one significant constant was the lack of pay and respect that was once afforded to doctors. To point, it was not uncommon for doctors to be part-time physicians and part-time barbers, out of the same office, in order to make ends meet.

But doctors decided to change it.  They didn’t get the respect they wanted by asking for it; they demanded it through the expertise and excellence that they required of themselves. They seized control of their profession by professionalizing it themselves. They raised the bar. They held each other accountable. They decided their professional associations.

After all, it’s pretty basic supply and demand situation. If anybody can do what you’re doing, then you are going to get paid – and treated – like just anybody else. Can anybody be a doctor? I would argue that not anyone can be an outstanding teacher. The problem is that we allow plenty of space in our profession for those that are not. And, we pay for it.

Or, more accurately, we don’t get paid for it.

Doctors voluntarily shunned mediocrity and poor practice, by being sure not anyone could be a doctor. They started performing at a level that not just anyone could attain through rigorous standards created not by outsiders, government officials, or the public, but by themselves. Their current status is largely based upon the public’s response to those efforts.

I’ve evaluated the best of the best and no, not anyone can do it. To be honest, I know some doctors who couldn’t replicate some of the talent, intellect, and skill I’ve seen demonstrated in classrooms.

But, back to the question of whether “we” will get paid more.

This kind of change does take time. “We” may not. Obviously, the parallels between the fields are far more sophisticated than I am portraying in this post, but I believe we can change the course of the profession by drawing on what is congruent. It is often said that MLK felt strongly that he would not witness the results of the Civil Rights Movement. An overwhelming majority of those that struggled for the same cause indeed, did not. He advocated for those who were to come after, in essence dedicating his life for rights he would never receive.

History is rife with examples of great people doing noble and foresighted things for a movement – not necessarily for personal gain – so that someday, someone would get the respect, pay, or treatment he or she deserved. They did it with a sense of moral purpose. Teachers often tell me how they believe in their students, so I propose believing in the ones who are going to follow in our footsteps, the ones who will want to become teachers.

The ones we need to become teachers.

Many of the doctors Mr.Thorpe described never saw six figure salaries, luxuries, or the status enjoyed by physicians today. However, they were rich enough in professional spirit to advance the cause of medicine as a career. They consciously raised the bar on themselves, because they knew that the later iteration of physicians would be the only ones capable of clearing it. In essence, they created a profession where nearly all are elite.

Society responded. It had no choice, because not anyone can be a doctor.

We know what it would take so that not anyone could be a teacher. Are we willing to do it? If not, then settle in for more of the same.

And, believe me when I say that our kids will not thank us for it.


Greg Broberg

Greg Broberg

Tempe, Arizona

One of my favorite quotes related to teaching is by Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” It keeps me grounded in two ways. First, it reminds me that teaching should always involve the “search” for knowledge. This may come from a professional development source, colleague or student. Second, it keeps me on guard for new ways to engage students—bringing a fresh perspective on something I may have taught for years.

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