The Work and Lives of Teachers: A Global Perspective
Written by: Rosetta Marantz Cohen
What is the status of the teaching profession around the world? Do teachers in Europe, Asia and Africa see themselves as American teachers do? Are their rewards the same; their complaints the same? And what are the implications of those teacher attitudes for the twenty-first century world?
My book attempts to answer those questions by tracing the daily experiences of teachers in seven countries, documenting their work and lives, their attitudes and their struggles as they attempt to find meaning and satisfaction in a profession that is under assault, worldwide. The book is grounded in two basic organizing questions: First, what is the relationship between teacher status within a culture and the way their students performed on comparative measures? Secondly, assuming there is a correlation between the quality of the teacher and the academic success of the student, how can countries attract smart, young people into the profession? What can countries like the United States and England learn from the successes of others like Finland and Taiwan?
As many of us already know, teaching in America has always been a low-prestige occupation. In early America, teaching was a mere waystation for bookish men looking to earn some money before finding their real life’s work. After the feminization of the profession in the mid-19th century, teaching suffered even more in terms of cache. Indeed, in the earliest comprehensive sociology of the teaching profession, published in 1932, the writer Willard Waller described a profession where the concept of professional service had devolved into utter servitude. A teacher’s contract reprinted in Waller’s book documents a level of community control that is almost impossible to believe. Among its demands to the new teacher are the following:
I promise to take a vital interest in all phases of Sunday-school work, donating of my time, service, and money without stint for the uplift and benefit of the community.
I promise to abstain from all dancing, immodest dressing, and any other conduct unbecoming a teacher and a lady.
I promise not to fall in love, to become engaged or secretly married.
I promise to sleep at least eight hours a night, to eat carefully, and to take every precaution to keep in the best of health and spirits, in order that I may be better able to render efficient service to my pupils.
I promise to remember that I own a duty to the townspeople who are paying me my wages, that I owe respect to the school board and superintendent that hired me, and that I shall consider myself at all times the willing servant of the school board and townspeople.
“Women teachers,” Waller concluded, “are our Vestal Virgins.” (1932, p. 458).
This sad history of the profession has no real counterpart in other countries of the world. Almost without exception, the profession of teacher has been a historically prestigious one outside the United States. In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, teachers were traditionally drawn from the educated elite, a status that drew veneration and not contempt. Countries like China and Japan are built on cultural norms that venerate the teacher and see his or her role as crucial to civilized order. In the Islamic world, teaching has its own extraordinary history, a celebration of secular wisdom that dates back to the ninth century. Even in Europe, where the earliest teachers were linked to the church, the profession was held in the highest of repute. Literacy and scholarship were seen as precious currency. Again, while teachers were not wealthy, they were among the most respected people in society.
Starting in the late twentieth century, however, that sense of the specialness of the teacher seems to have quickly begun to erode, spurred on by economic globalization and the Americanization of international cultures.
This book documents that process. Through ethnographic portraits of seven teachers around the world, I trace the changing attitudes towards a changing profession. The book begins by considering teachers from countries that score high on the infamous PISA test, that comparative measure of student performance from 65 countries that is often held up as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Teachers in Finland and Taiwan, two top performing countries, describe their work lives and their sense of themselves as professionals. From there, I move on those in the middle and at the bottom of the PISA scoreboard: the United States and France; Greece, Chile and Azerbaijan.
The final chapter of the book seeks to draw connections across these portraits, to highlight what is the same and what is different, and more importantly, to consider what we can do to draw from the best. I believe it is possible to change the way we perceive the profession of teaching, and like other pressing planetary problems– like global warming and environmental degradation– it is critical that we do it now.