Education Opinion

The Regulated Lives of Teachers

By Diane Ravitch — October 09, 2007 2 min read

Dear Deb,

No, I don’t think the dilemmas you describe are as omnipresent in all of life’s vocations as they are in teaching. I don’t have the classroom experience that you have. I have taught mainly graduate students in my life as a professor and have spent most of my time as a historian and writer about education. In many ways, maybe most ways, that puts me at a disadvantage in comparison to you. But the great advantage that I have had in my own career has been that I have been free from the kinds of dictates and mandates that you have encountered. The life of a professor and a writer is far, far less regulated than the life of a teacher!

Most professors, I think, have tenure, which insulates them from political pressures. I have never had tenure and have not had that layer of protection. In 1994, I was pushed out of my untenured position at Teachers College because (as I was told at the time), my colleagues did not like my views. Fortunately for me, I landed at New York University, also untenured, and so far no one has told me that my views demand my exclusion.

I am not teaching now, just writing. When students ask me for advice, I encourage them to be true to themselves, but I know that in the university today, there are limitations on what one is allowed to say and believe and write. Of course, you can say and believe and write anything, but if you offend the reigning orthodoxy in your department, you cannot count on being hired the next year unless you already have tenure. So, the unwritten rule for born rule-breakers is to stay in the conventional mode and keep your views to yourself until after you have tenure.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind that people who work in higher education are far freer than teachers to express their views, to criticize their leaders, and to dissent from current policies. There is far likelier to be open dissent and discussion in the university setting about the university’s policies than there will be in schools about the policies of the school, the “system,” the district, or the state.

Back in the 1930s, Howard K. Beale wrote a book titled “Are American Teachers Free?” His answer was negative, because there were so many restraints on teachers’ freedom of belief and speech. Today, for different reasons, the challenges to teachers’ freedom of belief and speech are very different. Yet, I think that if a similar book were written, it would come to disturbing conclusions about teachers’ freedom and professionalism.


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