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Volume 19, Number 5
September/October 2003

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Teachers

School reforms are destined to fail until teaching becomes a professional career


It is telling that an American parent's aspirations for a son or daughter often include the practice of medicine or law but almost never of education. An African American student at Harvard told us her parents tried to discourage her from becoming a teacher. They advised her to go into some other field where, as a smart and talented young woman, she "could be a real success." She went into teaching despite the urgings of her parents and many of her friends. She is an exception—one of the few academically accomplished college students who choose teaching over other, more attractive opportunities.

Teaching is a job—not a profession or even a career. There are recognized criteria, after all, for a profession, and teaching meets almost none of them. And for a job to be a career, there must be a visible and attainable career ladder with advancements based on increased experience, knowledge, and expertise.

To understand the deficiencies of this job-that-is-not-a-professional-career, we must look at teaching's history. In the industrialized 19th century, women, recently freed from farm work by mechanization, took up the only intellectual jobs available to them. By 1885, women made up 90 percent of the teaching force (a ratio almost the same in elementary schools today), working in poor conditions for little pay. In the 20th century, once women obtained the right and the means to compete for nearly any job available to men, fewer chose teaching. The shortage of qualified classroom teachers is now a national crisis. Although a softening of the economy and a shortage of jobs have many college grads considering teaching, most see this as a short-term option. When they find the positions they really want, they'll quickly leave.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    R.S. Barth. Improving Schools from Within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

    N. Hoffman. Woman's "True" Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching (2nd ed.) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, in press.

    National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1983.

    J.D. Saphier. Bonfires and Magic Bullets: Making Teaching a True Profession, the Step Without Which Other Reforms Will Never Take nor Endure. Carlisle, Mass.: Research for Better Teaching, 1995.

    V. Troen and K.C. Boles. Who's Teaching Your Children? Why the Teacher Crisis Is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.

    D.B. Tyack. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

    D. Tyack and L. Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.