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Davis Thorton is a public policy student at the Muskie School of Public Service. Andrea Stairs-Davenport is a professor in the Department of Literacy, Language, and Culture and associate dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Southern Maine.
Teaching is complex work, and the role of the teacher, its extent and depth, has been a point of public contention for decades. Famous sociologist Dan Lortie, in his influential 1975 work “Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study,” described teaching as a “special but shadowed” profession, at once perceived by the public as a “dedicated service” and mocked as “easy work.”
According to the 2022 Annual Phi Delta Kappa poll of the public’s attitudes toward public schools, local public schools have been rated more highly than ever by the public but their rating of the nation’s schools overall was far lower: 54 percent of respondents gave their local schools a grade of an A or a B, whereas only 23 percent gave the nation’s schools those grades. Additionally, public school parents rated their children’s public school teachers even more highly, with 72 percent of parents expressing trust and confidence in teachers. However, when the parents surveyed were asked whether or not they would want their children to pursue teaching as a career, only 37 percent said yes.
Teachers have traditionally been perceived as members of a highly feminized helping profession. As a result, their role has often been perceived as limited in its authority to the ostensibly “easy work” of the interpersonal. This perception existed before the pandemic and persists after it — with the added complexity of current cultural debates leading some decision makers to seek to restrict even the interpersonal authority teachers have, such as through legislation that would require teachers to not use a student’s chosen name and pronouns without explicit parental consent, further corroding the authority and professionalism of the teacher’s role.
Recently, we conducted research examining how more than 60 news media articles from national and local outlets published during the COVID-19 pandemic potentially continued to reproduce this perception of the teacher’s role as paradoxically important and impotent, or as Lortie put it decades ago, special but shadowed. Our findings suggest that, during the pandemic, the news media continued to reproduce this perception of the teacher’s role.
Specifically, news media reproduced this perception by portraying teachers as interpersonally skillful but unauthoritative, as a metaphorical constant and an integral part of the basic fabric of the social safety net that is nonetheless relegated to the background as the debate about their profession rages on.
This backgrounding of teachers was perhaps most noticeable in the absence of teacher voices. Oftentimes articles — whether they were hard news stories, features or editorials — spoke about or to teachers. Rarely did teachers speak. If they did speak, it was often about their relationships with students as something akin to a maternal figure rather than as an authority on educating students. When they did happen to speak as an authority, their message was the same: trust us as professionals worthy of respect and, above all, recognize that we are people, too.
Despite the objectivity of the content itself, crafting a news article requires making subjective decisions. Even the decision to place or not place a column is a subjective one. As the pandemic recedes into our collective memory and the culture wars reach a fever pitch, it becomes vital that the news media, rather than producing content that merely speaks to or about teachers, puts teachers in the foreground as knowledgeable, highly trained professionals capable of speaking for themselves on educational issues. By doing so, teaching will be shown for what it is: a profession worthy of respect and worth pursuing as a career.