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Teaching Becomes a Profession

by Erling M. Hunt - 1937

A discussion of how teaching has become a profession, requiring professional training and professional procedures.

THERE are still many schools in the United States in which teaching is a relatively easy profession. With respect to actual teaching, this applies to our colleges and universities and even our normal schools and teachers colleges, but with these we are not concerned. Nor need we here consider those elementary schools of which the statement is also true. But in many secondary schools, the level on which this discussion is focused, college graduates are employed without regard to specific training for teaching, and both normal and liberal arts college graduates are employed with little regard to scholastic attainment in the specific subject matter to be taught. This is quite in accord with the view still held by many workers in education that teaching consists of making assignments, hearing recitations, administering tests, and maintaining good discipline. It is in accord with the view that learning consists of mastering a given body of facts together with related skills, of acquiring such habits as neatness, promptness, and obedience, and such attitudes as respect for authority, acceptance of the social order, and willingness to do what is expected.

It is not here maintained that this sort of teaching is altogether easy—the daily teaching of such facts and skills as these to one or two hundred adolescents, together with the maintenance of order and such instilling of desirable habits and attitudes as may be possible, is nerve-racking and requires both intelligence and effort. But it is maintained that such teaching is far easier than meeting the demands which in the past generation have come increasingly to be made of teachers. For educators have come to believe that the sort of teaching I have been describing is either undesirable or not enough.

The attitude of state departments of education is made evident in part at least by the steadily rising requirements for certification of public school teachers—requirements now so exacting in some states that the Dean of Barnard College decries the barring of college graduates of substantial cultural attainments from the faculties of secondary schools. To the extent that certification involves the mere meeting of formal point requirements without due attention to scholarship, culture, and fitness for teaching, Dean Gildersleeve can make an excellent case, but on the other hand she represents to some extent the view that education is still concerned chiefly with accepted facts, skills, and attitudes. And these, as has already been pointed out, have come to be regarded as insufficient.

Some may still insist that good teachers are born, not made, but most of us will admit that good teachers may be made better, poor teachers less bad. And in recent years it has accordingly become customary to prescribe a little psychology. The laws of learning, habits of reading and study, individual differences, the value of visual aids and of activities—acquaintance with all these and much more has come to be expected of teachers. The responsibility for pupil achievement has been shifted from the pupil to the teacher. It is no longer enough for teachers to present their facts and skills to be taken or left as the pupil may choose or be able. Teachers must stimulate the keen, labor with the dull, make provision for individual talents and interests, and give a strict account of failures. A professional gain? Yes, of course. But also a heavy increase in the burden of teaching, and an increase which has not always been offset by any decrease in the number of pupils.


Then there is frequently a second prescription called philosophy of education or principles of teaching. Actually there are several conflicting philosophies of education, but the one which has of late gained greatest favor in American normal schools and teachers colleges has stressed the doctrine of interest, has insisted that education should be not preparation for rich and effective living but should actually be rich and effective living; it has challenged accepted facts and bodies of subject matter, accepted skills and habits and attitudes, and has defined education as actual experience, to be provided in response to immediate and practical felt needs. This, of course, has enormously increased the burden placed upon the teacher—at least in those communities where this philosophy has been accepted. For the teacher no longer has an established body of facts, skills, habits, and attitudes with which he is concerned; in progressive schools he is now the directing influence in the molding of character and personality, concerned not with mere traditional learning, primarily—that is incidental—but with health, complexes and fixations, vocational guidance, training for leisure, and all else that enters into the making of what is now technically known as an integrated personality—roughly the same, I gather, as the well-balanced or well-rounded individual of whom we used to hear. Do you agree that the burden on the teacher has increased?—or perhaps I should say on the school, for some staffs have come to include specialists in health, in psychology, and in vocational guidance; but even so, has not the burden on teachers still increased? Assignments should now be motivated; what we teach—it used to be subject matter, but the expression is no longer altogether acceptable in advanced circles—must be organized in units and interpreted in "understandings," or, better yet, presented in activities, ranging from the somewhat familiar writing of themes or taking of tests to the somewhat less exacting "thinking about" or "talking about" whatever aspect of the natural or social world may be involved in the felt need of the moment. Then, too, classroom discipline has changed. Maintaining silence and decorum is no easy matter. Enduring the freedom now accepted as desirable, which at best is distracting and which at worst must be tactfully kept from passing the hazy boundary between freedom and bedlam, calls for nerves of steel, and for resources of character and personality which I only wish could be acquired in two-point courses in education or anything else. Disciplinary difficulties formerly led to the disgrace of the pupils. In progressive schools they now are fully as likely to lead to the disgrace of the teacher.

Obviously the relationship between pupils and teacher has shifted. The irate lady who, after slipping on a minor fact, cut off an alert pupil who meekly started to say "But, Miss Jones, I thought the book said—" with a withering "Young man, you're not here to think; you're here to learn" was probably quite right in the educational philosophy of an earlier day. Again, the change that has come has serious implications for the teacher. It is relatively easy to make pupils learn facts; it is not easy at all to persuade them to think, especially if they are to think straight and substantially.

From our new educational psychology and philosophy have followed changes in classroom procedure. The socialized recitation, projects, activities, new-type tests, increased freedom in the classroom—all these illustrate, not only the need for professional study by teachers, but also procedures which are far more exacting in their demands on teachers than the duties of a combination of policeman and clerk which have enabled mediocre teachers to draw salaries under educational principles now sharply challenged.

Actually, of course, this means that teaching has become a profession, requiring professional training and professional procedures. Of course for many intelligent and conscientious teachers it has always been such, just as the practice of medicine was long a profession for many honest and careful physicians who happened to have been trained by riding around with an older doctor rather than by formal courses in a medical school. But teaching is now becoming, as medicine, law, and engineering long since have become, a profession in which novices and amateurs are not only at a conspicuous disadvantage, but even in danger of doing harm. (Not that a few courses in a teachers college guarantee professional fitness or success.)


All this, I believe, is sheer gain, to be rejoiced in by us all. Education has always been important enough that its improvement should be cause for satisfaction, but especially so in an age which has greatly increased the responsibility placed upon its schools. For society, as well as the educational psychologists and philosophers, has been increasing enormously the burden placed upon teachers. Some commentators have spoken of the breakdown of the church and the home; whether the change actually amounts to a breakdown need not be argued here. Suffice it to note that the relaxing of parental and church discipline, the coming of motion pictures, tabloids, and the radio, and the increased accessibility to adolescents of automobiles, have forced upon the secondary schools imperative problems in citizenship training which these schools have not been equipped to solve. Athletic and recreational programs, a host of extracurricular activities, and fairly elaborate social programs have all been developed, sometimes with the help of specialists in athletics or perhaps dramatics, but usually by adding to the responsibilities of classroom teachers already fairly overwhelmed by the new professional demands of their classroom work. Special responsibility for citizenship training has been unceremoniously dumped into the laps of dismayed teachers of history, social studies, or civics, who have seldom been able even to attempt more than some slight and conventionalized teaching about citizenship. And this task, as well as all else that the teacher has had to do, has been greatly complicated by the influx of large numbers of low-ability pupils for whom the old curriculum was not suitable, and for whom even now a suitable curriculum has not been provided. The eliminated of difficult subjects and the lowering of scholarship standards to meet the need of the middle group of students do not necessarily provide what even that middle group needs, and it still leaves to teachers the problems of what to do for high and low ability groups. Sectioning pupils by ability, or homogeneous grouping, has not solved these problems, partly because all the groups have usually continued to use the same curriculum, but mostly because any thoroughgoing efforts to differentiate the curriculum run afoul of our democratic ideal, which interprets equality of opportunity to mean identity of opportunity. The result amounts to denial of opportunity—the boy who needs a strenuous course in mathematics or chemistry, the girl who needs a strenuous course in music or art, are equally sacrificed to their classmates of moderate talents and no special interests. Three-level assignments fail similarly to differentiate the curriculum, and again greatly increase the teacher's burden. The Dalton plan of individual programs and assignments is beyond the resources of ordinary schools—and of ordinary teachers.

Meanwhile technological development and our even more complex and interdependent social, economic, and political structure add to the difficulties of making secondary education practical, realistic, and adequate. As usual the change has affected the classroom teacher, and as usual his load has thereby been increased. For the curriculum has needed revision, and the revision has come—in fact it has come in a confusing variety of ways.


Subjects, it has already been observed, are coming in many circles to be considered old-fashioned, and they are even considered a menace to the development of truly integrated personalities in the child-centered schools which now exist in a few communities. But are those subjects with the old-fashioned names—English, mathematics, history, science—the same as they were a few years ago? Indeed they are not.

There has been a tendency to reduce English grammar to a minimum, or even, it may appear to the over-exacting, to a point somewhat below that rather vague level. Composition has tended to become either functional or creative, in any case, less deadeningly formal than it once had the reputation of being. Literature has included more and more of contemporary literature, fewer of those classics which are sometimes especially abhorrent to theorists who have not read them, and the development of appreciation and the need for some contribution to training in the use of leisure have been recognized to some extent.

Great changes have similarly occurred in the mathematics program. Protests that not even engineers need much of the algebra and plane and solid geometry which used to be taught have resulted in the elimination of much which was once justified as being good mental discipline. At the same time new material of practical value has been added. Parents who made honor grades in mathematics twenty-five years ago have been known to encounter difficulty in the use of the slide rule and logarithmic tables, and even in the making of graphs. My colleagues who give courses in the teaching of mathematics have become very sensitive about the expression "formal mathematics," and they no longer talk much of its value as mental discipline. They do talk of it as indispensable to any understanding of modern science and economics, and as a practical method of thinking which is absolutely essential to coping with the modern world.

So, too, with history—it is no longer the dry and arid collection of dates, names, and summaries of politics and wars that many believe it to have been. Rather it has become the fascinating story of the development of man and his civilization, the still incomplete and sometimes puzzling account of how our society came to be what it is, the somewhat unsatisfactory but nevertheless indispensable key to any real understanding of our modern world, which, most of us agree, has to be understood by our high school graduates if democracy can hope to succeed. With this newer history has come a range of closely related social sciences—economics, sociology, government, social psychology. All of these are relatively new in the secondary school curriculum, and, in fact, still imperfectly adjusted to it, though they represent areas of knowledge of vital importance to those who live in the economic, political, and social world which these fields describe.


Has all this increased the burden on the teacher? The question answers itself. Every field has been enriched, crowded to capacity. Teachers have had to relearn their mathematics, history, or science; they have had to eliminate, add, shift emphasis, condense, interpret. They have had to become far more efficient in their teaching of pupils whose outside hours have been crowded with cars, radio, movies, and sports, whose heads have had to be crammed with a greater number of facts now necessary to their life outside school than used to be taught in all their classrooms combined. If we consider the sum total of facts about athletes and scores, movie stars and their productions, radios and their programs, makes of cars and their parts, which crowd the minds of modern youth, is it any wonder that teachers must struggle to teach still more data, however valuable?

Yet the world must be taken as it is, and all of this is part of the professional challenge with which the teacher may reasonably be faced. His work has become harder, more technical, but it is his work. By better initial training, with occasional retraining in summer sessions, by the use of professional magazines and associations, by more efficient use of his time, he can hope to maintain contact with the new educational psychologies and philosophies, the new developments in his field, the new emphases in the curriculum. He may even find time to contribute to the extracurricular activities of his school, though time so spent is lost to growth in the field of his specialty, and that growth is increasingly essential to the maintenance of much-needed contacts between what he teaches and what goes on in the outside world of his pupils.

But how much more can he do? I have tried to describe, fairly and without exaggeration, the responsibilities, other than for burdensome clerical work, that have been placed quite generally upon classroom teachers. I believe they are inescapable. I fear that they may grow greater, for our social problems multiply, and our knowledge continues to expand rapidly. I know that the burden is already crushing. No one, quite literally, can keep up with all the developments in mathematics. Still less can anyone keep up with developments in science. In history the case is certainly no better, and developments in all the social sciences are beyond the comprehension of any mortal man.

Most professional workers have taken refuge in specialization, gaining competence and power at the cost of becoming relatively narrow. Physicians, lawyers, professors—yes, and school administrators in larger communities—have been forced to limit the range of their activity in order to function efficiently. Occasionally classroom teachers have been permitted the same solution—one hears of teachers and supervisors of chemistry, of American history, or of economics—but many of us can testify to quite different situations. Programs calling for four, five, or six preparations daily are far more common.

Some relief has been obtained by resorting to various devices for mechanical teaching. Weak, ill-trained, or overburdened teachers have always been driven to textbook teaching, to excessive reliance on syllabi and on ready-made courses of study. These are playing their part now, together with the mechanical workbooks and mechanical tests which are more recent developments. Such devices may raise the level of poor teaching; they cramp and hinder good teaching. To a large extent they represent an abandonment of really professional instruction, in which contacts are constantly made between the environment, knowledge, and interests of pupils and the work of the classroom in favor of the formal and even clerical kind of teaching which has been so vigorously attacked in recent years. Textbooks, workbooks, and even some state and local courses of study, are constructed for the country at large, or, at least, areas far larger than the communities where they are used. Really professional teaching uses the social, economic, political, and physical surroundings of the immediate locality—not that it stops there, but there it may well start, and there it may find the examples and illustrations which make new material, new generalizations, part of the actual experience of pupils. But again account must be taken that all this demands time for observation, study, and thought on the part of teachers. Where are they to find it? How are they to meet these requirements?


The answer would be easier if with increased responsibility there had come substantially larger school staffs, permitting more specialization and increases in salary. Until such increases are possible, practical limitations are imposed upon the professional training which can be required of teachers, but meanwhile many have devoted weekends, summers, and savings to equipping themselves for their work. Teachers of science and mathematics, of history, social studies, geography, economics, civics, and sociology are still not able to travel and observe firsthand the factories, mines, farms, the natural world, or the social, economic, and political institutions in this country and abroad, with which their classes are concerned. Few experienced teachers have ever been able to take a year of graduate study, and their number grew even smaller in the depression years, a loss only partially offset by the increased number of able young college graduates who have come without experience for graduate training and who, when trained, have encountered discouraging difficulty in securing an appointment. But, present state certification practice to the contrary and notwithstanding, one of the major problems of teacher training has become, as a result of developments already noted, the retraining of teachers in service. That can be done in part through conferences, through extension courses, and through summer work. It may be done to some extent through professional organizations and publications, with the practical limitation that teachers can afford few memberships, few fares, and few hotel bills for conventions, and far fewer magazines and books, either professional or cultural, than modern education requires. Most teachers do not, perhaps cannot, subscribe to the professional journals published for them.

Some retraining goes on through new textbooks and new courses of study, which slowly but surely respond to new ideas and needs in education. But many teachers have few ways of learning of such new materials, and in any case a textbook obviously cannot include the teacher background necessary to its competent and effective use.

So far as specialization for the classroom teacher is concerned, that is largely a matter of school and staff size and of the policy of the principal. If specialization is encouraged or allowed, the price for teachers, as for others, is some degree of narrowness. But to them also the gain is, or can be, power—an intimate knowledge of detail which brings life and color to teaching, and a grasp of meanings and relationships which is necessary if education is to be more than the bleak learning of facts. If specialization is to be permitted, and it is proving, I believe, an inevitable characteristic of professional growth everywhere else, then very great care must be taken in constructing the secondary school curriculum to preserve unity and coherence and to point out relationships between the various parts. Provision can be made, furthermore, for the inclusion of integrating courses or units in which the various social sciences, the various natural sciences, and the various arts are brought into focus and relationship, and in which overlapping and connections of these three great areas may perhaps be pointed out. Such relationships are important; we should establish them and teach them if we can, but these great areas are far too vast to be mastered by any one teacher. And I cannot subscribe to the statement attributed to one professor of education that the ideal educational situation exists when the class and the teacher are equally ignorant, and can thus learn together in sweet and earnest co-operation.

The recommendation of specialization runs counter to many recent developments in education, and leads to my final point in discussing the increasing responsibility of secondary school teachers: the need for recognizing that there is some limit to the load that can be shouldered by teachers who, after all, are only human.

It might seem reasonable that learning and trying to apply a new educational psychology and philosophy and new classroom and testing procedures, building a new relationship with pupils, and recognizing new responsibilities to society, together with attempting to master a revised curriculum, might be enough to expect of teachers. It has not been so. In many communities, for example, they have been expected to construct new curricula. I believe that teachers ought to have a voice in curriculum making; courses of study should be practical and workable, and they should take into account the local environment, with which teachers ordinarily have close acquaintance. There is professional value to teachers, furthermore, in thinking about curriculum problems and considering new and possible materials, approaches, and activities. But the teachers who have been charged with the organization of these materials, approaches, and activities have not always brought, or been provided with, either adequate knowledge of new developments in education or scholarship for competent curriculum making. Not infrequently new courses of study have been constructed out of old textbooks, and the stream has not risen higher than its source. The result has been shoddy curricula, which merely complicate subsequent work. This is not a reflection upon teachers, who have other work to consume their time and energies. The fault lies in failure to recognize the limitations of their resources, together perhaps with a lack of recognition of the amount and complexity of modern society and knowledge, which most teachers have inadequate opportunity to study and consider.


A related demand to which most teachers are not equipped to respond calls for correlation, unification, co-ordination, or integration. (One educator has observed that this series of words provides ill the material for a satisfactory progressive education yell!) There is promise in such efforts, but only, I believe, if carried on by, or with the close co-operation of, experts in the various fields. Scientists of deep scholarship and broad interests, mathematicians with similarly deep scholarship and broad interests, and well-trained, experienced, and observant secondary school teachers should be able to work out significant correlations, integrations, or co-ordinations, of science and mathematics. So with the social sciences both among themselves and in combination with science and the arts. With the widening of the fields, however, more specialists are needed, and as they are added the difficulties in finding common ground of agreement increase. Again, the secondary school teacher must be represented if resulting programs are to be tried in the schools, but rarely have secondary teachers been able to keep up their scholarship enough to enable them profitably to correlate or integrate large areas of knowledge. It may be objected that I am speaking of a curriculum that is largely determined in advance rather than developed as class needs and interests demand. That is true, though there is opportunity for flexibility. You may object that scholarship of the sort I have in mind belongs in the colleges and graduate schools. I believe it is also needed in secondary schools. What we teach should be as near the truth as can by strenuous effort be managed; stale scholarship, unrealistic descriptions of our world, do not belong in a modern curriculum. Teaching, to repeat an earlier point, is most effective when it draws on detailed firsthand knowledge and a full grasp of relationships and significance.

If it is true that demands for curriculum construction and for correlation and integration have overtaxed the resources of teachers, what shall be said of more recent proposals that they frankly indoctrinate their pupils with views about present and future society, or that they join with other educators in building a new social order? Ignoring the by no means unimportant questions of whether the schools would be permitted to undertake such activities and of the sort of precedents involved in allying the schools with a particular group and with one side in controversial issues, are teachers in a position to study the evidence, weigh the issues, and reach conclusions necessary either to indoctrination or to creating new social and economic orders? If not, who is to hand down the ready-made decisions?

Teachers are always going to indoctrinate, consciously or unconsciously, by the nature of education. They must also take a hand in the molding of new conditions which, since society never ceases to change, are always evolving. But they have other tasks too—essential tasks, which have become more and more exacting, as I have tried to remind you. The youth of the land must be introduced to the highly complicated world in which they live, and must be given the understandings and skills which are necessary to effective life in that complicated world. Parents, churches, the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Y's, the movies, the radio, and the papers all take a hand in the process, but, as already noted, a large and an increasing responsibility falls on schools—and that mostly means on teachers. I make no plea for escape from work or responsibility, or for release from the obligation to give the best professional service which can be rendered. I have nothing but agreement with the objectives of progressive education. But the task must be defined if it is to be intelligently attacked, and it must be within the possibilities of our strength and resources if it is to be achieved. Then, by specializing when specialization is possible, with the indispensable co-operation of school administrators and of authorities not only in the theory and practice of education but in subject matter—that is, in the knowledge and understanding of aspects of the world in which we live—perhaps the responsibility of teachers, increasingly exacting though it may be, can be met with more real satisfaction to ourselves and with greater profit to the society which we serve.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 38 Number 6, 1937, p. 465-476
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 7680, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 10:29:35 PM

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