Friday, October 25, 2013

Teaching Is Not Women's Work

A recent article in The Atlantic looks at why teachers leave and why they stay.  Drawing heavily on research conducted by Dr. Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania's education school, it begins by painting the familiarly grim picture of low pay, lack of respect turned disrespect, and the astronomical turnover rate that is the natural consequence.  In the second paragraph, though, we find an interesting quotation from Dr. Ingersoll, who said that teaching "was originally built as this temporary line of work for women before they got their real job—which was raising families, or temporary for men until they moved out of the classroom and became administrators. That was sort of the historical set-up."  I do not take issue with the historicity of Dr. Ingersoll's statement, but would like to suggest that this past view of education, whose ramifications we feel today, was entirely misguided and that any current practice derivative of such a view must lead to devastating consequences.

Education is not women's work, if by that it is meant a pastime to keep women occupied until something else comes along.  It is not a low-skill, unimportant job to be relegated to second-class citizens, a status under which women have long labored.  Nor is it a trivial exercise worthy of little more than disdain wrapped in polite condescension because the principal participants are children, another often disregarded group.

Education takes place when one human being helps another understanding something.  It happens when we share the stories of our past, whether those stories are about a world war or a mathematical formula.  Education is, quite simply, communication, and that is a most glorious gift among humans.  It is true, of course, that other animals communicate, but only humans compose sonnets, write music, and develop theories about the subatomic world, and make no mistake, all these are forms of communication and therefore educate those who take part in them.

We have rightly extolled the efforts of certain groups of communicators, the physicists, say, who are working to understand the fundamental workings of the universe.  We give them Nobel prizes, and so we should.  We exalt groups who communicate musically, often requesting musical communication for the honoring of kings and presidents, and those who have listened to a symphony play Mozart know deep in their souls that it was a learning experience.  There have been cultures, perhaps now fewer than we would like, who revered the individual communicator, the elder who taught the young of the tribe around the fire.

To think, then, that the organized communication that takes place in our schools is anything less or other than a different, yet necessary, component of the human euphony, is short sighted in the extreme.  Like any act of creation, teaching, which is communicating, is a distinct act of humanity.  It is part of our greatness, to be participated in by all who will, and therefore worthy of every honor.

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