The teacher trap

Teaching, child care, and women’s work in the “caring professions”

In the recent dust-up culminating in pre-summer job action by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF), news forums lit up as supporters and detractors exchanged barbs over the merits of the provincial government’s and STF’s respective bargaining positions.

While teachers clearly enjoy a base of support and even heroic status as frequent subjects of Hollywood’s inspirational kitsch, they also inspire significant public resentment. It is no easy task to sort out the real opposition to the teachers’ position from the muddle of anti-unionism and taxpayer angst.

With a new school year under way and a contract now ratified, the dust has all but settled on this dispute in Saskatchewan. Yet teachers’ enduring fight for public esteem remains unresolved.

To start, the idea that teachers are merely glorified baby­sitters, while not always put this blatantly, persists, particularly for the area of teaching where the concentration of women is greatest: primary education. Like any other schoolyard taunt that sticks, the charge that teachers are babysitters succeeds by disarming its target. Engaging this remark sets a trap that teachers cannot afford to fall into: proclaiming their superiority to others who care for children, while denying certain undeniable aspects of their jobs. Were teaching a male-identified profession, it would not likely be confused with babysitting.

Teaching, along with nursing and social work, is considered a “caring profession,” so named for its presumed affinity with women’s traditional work as caregivers within the family. Today’s employer benefits from the historic equation of teaching with women’s work, which continues to colour every conversation about the status of teaching.

There is a vast reservoir of history tapped by the seemingly offhand babysitting remark. In the late 19th century, with the introduction of mandatory public education and the proliferation of one-room schoolhouses, the demand for a vast reserve of teachers ran up against pressures to rein in wages. As the opening quote suggests, educational over-seers struck gold by exploiting two of the prevailing truths about women: that they were better suited to everything child related, including early education, and that they could (and should) be paid less. This discovery by state employers opened the doors to skilled employment for working-class and lower-middle-class women. It also pushed many “lady principals” and headmistresses out of their positions as sole proprietors into waged teaching environments run by male authorities. This period has been characterized as the “proletarianization” of the teacher labour force.

As women became the predominant workforce in state-run primary schools, teaching itself was transformed. The classroom became subject to external control as bureaucratic school structures and hierarchies were installed, relegating women to lower-paying junior positions, while men were employed as senior teachers, principals and inspectors. Further reforms included more subjects being taught, larger schools, more pupils, ever-increasing workloads, additional supervisory duties outside the classroom, and teacher evaluations based on student performance. Many of these early reforms continue to structure the experience of both female and male teachers.

Prior to the advent of public schools, men enjoyed autonomy and flexibility in their classrooms, moving easily between teaching and other responsibilities, such as farm work, or using it as a stepping stone to more lucrative careers in the church and public office. As teaching lost autonomy and status, men began to quit teaching in favour of better opportunities.

The “lady teacher” was a controversial figure, simultaneously idealized for her nurturing and genteel character and subjected to pejorative depictions as uneducated and unserious. To facilitate the aggressive recruitment of women, a public accustomed to patriarchal roles had to be reassured that women were not taking jobs from the legitimate heads of households or destroying the family. Female teachers were, therefore, regulated in everything from morality to dress and, until the 1940s, were required to resign once married.

Today even the most debased corners of the blogosphere are not so crassly sexist as to suggest that elementary school teachers deserve less money because they are women. There is no need. According to Service Canada, in 2006-07 women held 87 per cent of elementary school positions and comprised 95 per cent of B.Ed. graduates concentrated in preschool and early elementary education.

Teachers would now seem to bear little resemblance to the demoralized, isolated teachers of the early 20th century. Teaching has long been one of the few ways that women could escape the occupational ghettos of their time: the factory, field or steno pool. Federations and unions have provided the main arsenal in the struggle to improve teachers’ wages, benefits, status and working conditions. Nonetheless, the issue of pay remains complex, partly due to the ambiguous nature of teachers’ workloads and workplace boundaries, its hierarchical authority structure and tiered pay scale. In 2006-07 the average wage for those 59 per cent of teachers employed full time was around $47,000, while the 41 per cent without full-time status averaged $25,000 per year.

Professionalization has been an indispensable weapon for raising the status of teaching. However, it has also been a vehicle to establish a science of teaching and to rationalize classroom instruction based on top-down, research-driven, standardized approaches, which may be of more benefit to employers and teacher educators than to teachers or students. The extent to which this is true in any particular region deserves more in-depth study than is possible here.

Professionalization has also – by necessity, some would say – distanced teaching from women’s work with children. Primary teachers’ duties, including curriculum development and delivery, orienting students to the academic system and preparing them for higher levels of education, clearly go beyond babysitting and crowd control. Nonetheless, they remain part of the child-care circuit as a sometimes-complement, sometimes-alternative to other caregivers. Teachers relate to the whole child, optimally at least, and performing pseudo-parental tasks is unavoidable. Further, cultivating artistic expression, emotional strength, pro-social values and a critical intellect would seem to be part of child development no matter whose hands do the moulding: teacher, parent or daycare worker. Teachers can have a leadership role in this undertaking, not just with children, but with parents.

The justification for pay increases is further frustrated by the fact that teaching participates in a narrative of service and self-sacrifice. Those who work with children, which is said to be its own reward, are subject to a peculiar sort of valorization that is offered in place of pay. It is another trap.

The plight of teachers, then, is characteristic of the widespread demotion of female-identified work, especially that involving children. Children may be politically useful as a rhetorical device, but they are not a political force or priority – references to their status as our most valuable resource and other clichés notwithstanding. The broader challenge is to resist the downgrading of child care and education generally, including the notion that this work is the sole domain and gift of women.

Aleksandra McHugh is a stay-at-home mom and writer.