Teaching Profession

Teachers, Doctors, Lawyers Vie for Unhappiest Profession

By Ross Brenneman — April 20, 2014 4 min read
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Teachers: Are you miserable? Do you feel disrespected and annoyed by your profession?

In Wake County, N.C., school leaders held a press conference Thursday warning of a high number of teacher resignations this year, led in part, they said, by low salaries, according to the News & Observer. Elsewhere, a Cambridge, Mass., teacher, Susan Sluyter, made headlines in March for very publicly quitting over what she saw as too much emphasis on testing. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has been investing effort in programs like Teach to Lead, and the even more vaguely named TEACH, that try to increase the appeal of teaching.

You don’t have to be a master of divination to see what’s happening: Many within the teaching profession don’t like it, and want out.

On occasion, I’ve seen op-eds that suggest one way to increase the professionalism within teaching—and thereby (a) draw more people into it, and (b) keep them there—is to borrow ideas from other professions—medicine being a prominent example. There has been no shortage of comparison there, in fact. Here’s Education Week blogger Walt Gardner on the subject:

Doctors have long known that the status of patients with factors beyond their control largely determines outcomes regardless of their professional expertise. Why are teachers treated differently?

In April 2013, education experts Jal Mehta and Joe Doctor argued in the Phi Delta Kappan for creating a board exam for teaching, not unlike the one in place for medicine:

If such an exam was sufficiently rigorous, it could change who is drawn into teaching, develop a more consistent, higher level of skill among all teachers, improve student outcomes, and greatly increase public regard for teachers and teaching.

As surgeon Atul Gawande has pointed out, teaching and medicine are not so different already.

So if the education field were treated more like the medical profession, with its rigor and such (unless you think the two callings are not actually alike at all) would that leave teachers better off?

Well, this piece from Daniela Drake published in The Daily Beast on Monday doesn’t make medicine sound much happier than teaching. Drake writes that while some elements of the medical field have prestige and wealth—like plastic surgeons—physicians have the short end of the stick:

Given that primary care doctors do the work that no one else is willing to do, being a primary care physician is more like being a janitor—but without the social status or union protections.

Wait, there’s more:

Calls to plead with insurance companies are peppered throughout the day. Every decision carries with it an implied threat of malpractice litigation. Failing to attend to these things brings prompt disciplining or patient complaint. And mercilessly, all of these tasks have to be done on the exhausted doctor’s personal time.

If we can extrapolate from Drake’s experience, then it seems doctors don’t feel much more respected than teachers do. Many of the latter do have union protections, and there usually aren’t lawsuits for low achievement. (The Vergara trial in California being an exception, but it seems to be high-profile because of that.)

Maybe education could be more like another profession with board exams and an air of respectability: Law. Well, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan has done exceptional work criticizing the legal profession and its many failings. As CNN reports, too, “Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.”

Here’s a young lawyer in his own words:

Much of law is cleaning up (or trying to prevent) the messes of others, and some of the time, especially at a junior level, you’re just doing menial tasks that the client (i.e. in-house counsel) can’t be bothered to do themselves.

Maybe ideas from the medical or legal professions could indeed help education seem more “professional,” but the grass doesn’t seem that much greener.

And hey, it’s not like journalism is apparently any better: According to a new set of rankings by CareerCast measuring jobs by overall reward, journalism is the 199th best job, out of a list of 200. (Take that lumberjacks!) Physicians ranked 75th, teachers’ aides ranked 85th, school principal hit #99, and elementary school teachers got #117. Are all our jobs terrible?

Well, no. As Vox’s Ezra Klein points out, rankings, no matter how mathematical they might portray themselves to be, ultimately involve subjective values unable to capture the spirit of a job. Rankings don’t ultimately tell anyone what job is best. The teacher at one of the best high schools in the country probably would be happier than a mathematician (the top-ranked job) stuck in a terrible environment.

And as Klein writes, “What’s the practical application of this knowledge? Should the middle school teacher go be a social worker? Or just take it as a given that the man who does her nails has a better job?”

Teaching might not be like “Dead Poets Society” anymore than medicine might not be like “Patch Adams” or law might not be like, uh, whatever movie about law that Robin Williams might have made. Maybe they—and other professions—just involve a lot more drudgery than they seem to from the outside. This doesn’t mean one profession can’t learn from the other and make improvements, but rather suggests that “professionalism” doesn’t actually have a causal relationship with happiness or satisfaction.

Though, I should add, the biggest problems any given profession faces don’t necessarily outweigh the good aspects. And teaching has many good aspects.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.