It’s always important to know where an idea began, who invented it, and what it means for us today. A coach, for example, was a Hungarian carriage in the Middle Ages that “carried” people from place to place. Then, much later, aristocratic youths would be accompanied by a tutor, or coach, as they traveled in this carriage to university and back. This is what coaching originally meant—not being trained in an imposed method, but being carried along and educated by someone with superior knowledge or skill. It helps to know where the idea began.
So where did many of the things we deal with today start out? When and why did we start thinking about better career structures and opportunities for teachers and about teaching being a collaborative rather than an individual and autonomous profession, for example? The answer is, they originated with a University of Chicago professor, who wrote one defining book more than 40 years ago and who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 94. His name is Dan Lortie, and in teaching today, we owe a lot to his legacy.
When I was in my mid 20s, in the U.K., I was trying to figure out a question for my doctoral study that I have pursued for my entire career. “What is it about the work situation of teachers that leads them to teach the way they do?” In 1975, I went to see a silver-haired scholar who had taken me under his wing. He thrust a text toward me across his desk, by a then-unknown American. His name was Dan Lortie. “Have you seen this?,” my mentor asked. “It’s really interesting.” Lortie’s book, Schoolteacher—one of the most cited books on teaching ever—defined not just the rest of my own career, but it initiated a transformation in how the whole work of teaching is understood.
Lortie’s book was the eventual outcome of a massive study of, ironically, 94 teachers about their work in the Boston metropolitan area. Lortie came up with four findings that are all still relevant today.
The Flat Career
Teaching, Lortie told us, has a flat or unstaged career. Schooling in the 19th century had to develop “a system of remuneration that would attract new members and paid little attention to those who already taught.” So salaries and seniority were inextricably interconnected.
Other professional careers gave members promotions to look forward to. They had “cycles of effort, attainment and renewed ambition.” But teaching was flat. So teachers focused on the present rather than the future and quietly resented colleagues with guaranteed pay even when their effort was less. Nowadays, organizations like the OECD, which organizes PISA, and the National Center for Education and the Economy, promote a teacher career that has different paths and distinct steps. There is also widespread advocacy for more and better teacher leadership. All this began with Lortie.
The “Apprenticeship of Observation”
How do teachers learn to teach? Mainly, Lortie said, through an apprenticeship, as students of endless hours of observation, from “the other side of the desk.” Learning to teach was about surviving the sink or swim experience of controlling your class and then fitting in with the way teaching already was.
The whole teacher education reform movement with better programs of induction and integration between theory and practice still strives to undo this age-old pattern of Lortie’s script. Teach for America, by comparison, that throws new teachers into challenging urban schools with just a few weeks summer training, merely repeats the “other side of the desk” mentality.
The Psychic Rewards of Teaching
Teaching is rooted in what Lortie called “psychic rewards.” Teachers “concentrate their energies at points where effort may make a difference,” rather than in vague discussions about how to make things better, Lortie wrote. Reformers ignore the psychic rewards of teaching at their peril. It’s students, not data that drive teachers. Online learning struggles to address teachers’ psychic connection to their students. Evidence-based improvement often has little impact on teaching because it doesn’t respect teachers’ psychic rewards. Lortie warned against highly structured interventions that are “developed by people whose orientations are different from classroom teachers” and that do not understand teachers culture.
The Culture of Individualism
Lortie’s greatest legacy is his argument that teaching has a culture of individualism that makes teachers conservative. Individualism, Lortie claimed, was reinforced and rewarded by a job that had uncertain criteria for successful performance and that drove teachers to rely instead on their own “indicators of effectiveness.”
Teachers were therefore invested in their own autonomy and resisted changes that threatened it. Teachers were isolated in their classrooms, insulated from collegial feedback, and uninterested in substantial, collective change. They showed little enthusiasm “in working together to build a stronger technical culture.”
Lortie’s work inspired antidotes to individualism, or privatism, as some people called it, in the form of teacher collaboration and collegiality, including the massive movement to build strong professional (learning) communities. Dan Lortie’s work is point zero for all we know about teacher collaboration. We think about and organize teaching differently because of his brilliant book.
A Personal Tribute.
Sadly, I never met Dan Lortie, but he had more influence on my own writing and career than any other scholar ever. I taught Lortie’s ideas on the culture of teaching to teachers and principals studying as graduate students at Oxford University in the 1980s and at the University of Toronto and Boston College after that—influencing my students’ subsequent work as professors as they attest to on Twitter.
Lortie was key to the first research I did when I moved to Canada in the late ‘80s. It compared individualistic and collaborative school districts that had bargained and agreed to more teacher- preparation time for elementary school teachers. Would teachers collaborate more or would they just do more prep individually? The answer was that time was not enough to guarantee collaboration; it needed leadership as well. But that leadership could be overzealous, resulting in contrived collegiality that made teachers collaborate in ways they didn’t want to.
Without Lortie’s influence, I would never have written Changing Teachers, Changing Times that reported these findings. Nor would I have co-authored Professional Capital and Collaborative Professionalism. Teacher careers, teacher collaboration, and teacher education reform: All these began with Dan Lortie. His legacy is monumental. He is a giant in research on teaching. We must always, always remember him.
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Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Press.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.