Teachers as Doctors or Lawyers

It looks like about once a year I write a post on education. It’s officially the most wonderful time of the year.

One argument I’ve heard with increased frequency in the never-ending debate on “ways to fix the education system” is to treat teachers like we do doctors and lawyers. This comes up most frequently from (former) teachers, who argue they should be given the same kind of respect and pay as doctors and lawyers.

Philosophically, I agree with this 100%. The job of being a teacher is as important–if not more important–than that of being a lawyer or doctor; however, given the current state of our society, I believe that grouping teachers in the same category as a doctor or a lawyer is an insult to all doctors and lawyers. Consider the following:

  • Post-graduate work. After four years of undergrad, a pre-med student must take the MCATs, get into medical school, spend four additional years training, then do a multi-year residency, pass the boards, etc. They are not immediately allowed to start working on patients to complete this entire process in X many years. After four years of undergrad, a pre-law student must take the LSATs, get into law school, spend three additional years training, pass the bar exam, etc. They are not allowed to start working on cases while they complete this entire process in X many years. Now let’s consider a teacher. After four years of undergrad (perhaps not even done in education), a pre-service teacher must pass or exempt the GACE (at least in Georgia), and…what else BEFORE setting foot in the classroom? Hell, it’s even been noted that teachers do not have to pass all parts of the GACE before being released to students. If we are going to treat teachers like doctors and lawyers, we should make sure their training is competitive and extensive enough to be in the doctor/lawyer category.
  • Credentials. When you go to a doctor–regardless of whether this is a dentist, optometrist, pediatrician, podiatrist–you always see something framed on the wall. It could be a degree. It could be a certificate of additional training completion. It could be an award. If you do NOT see a certificate on the wall…you’d probably be suspicious. When you go to a lawyer–regardless of whether this is a divorce lawyer, or contract lawyer, or personal injury lawyer–the same is true. Within five minutes of arrival, you know if your attorney graduated from Arizona State University in Phoenix or the University of Phoenix. You tacitly expect to see the credentials on the wall, displayed for all “clients” to see. It makes you feel comforted that these people have been trained extensively and appropriately. Now think of a classroom. In how many classrooms can you find the teacher’s credentials on the wall? Do you know if your child’s teacher graduated summa cum laude, magma cum laude, or just “thank you, lawdy”? Do you see their GACE or certification-exam scores on the wall? How do you feel about not seeing the credentials of your child’s teacher on the wall? Does it not seem logical and reasonable to know the training and background of those acting as intellectual authority figures to our children?
  • “Clients.” To a great extent, the number of clients a doctor and lawyer has at any given point in time is based on word-of-mouth, general professional reputation, and experience. The number of “clients” a teacher has is based solely on the number of students assigned to his class. An inexperienced teacher fresh out of undergrad could have as many, if not more, students in his class as an experienced veteran. A patient–unless in the E.R.–can choose his doctor, and even choose not to have a doctor. A client–unless charged with specific crimes–can choose his lawyer, and even choose not to have a lawyer. Is the same really true with teachers? Can parents/students choose their teacher? Maybe, if they have money and power to throw about. Can parents/students choose not to employ a teacher? Maybe, if they’re sneaky with home-schooling laws but usually not. It is frequently said that what–in part–makes the job of a teacher so difficult is the fact that many students don’t want to be in school. Is this a fair point? Education is “mandatory”; legal and medical representation (historically) is not. Does this create a Sisyphean task for teachers? Are (public school) teachers really the E.R. doctors and public defenders of education?
  • Liability. To ensure that they do not lose their jobs or reputation in the event of a “patient not living up to wellness potential”, doctors pay malpractice insurance. But still, doctors can lose their licenses and patients if things don’t go well. To ensure that they do not lose their reputation and clients in the event of a single lawyer failing to win a case, law firms have liability insurance. But again, firms can fire individual lawyers or go out of business. What about teachers and schools? What happens if students do not meet their educational potentials, as measured by SAT scores, or ITBS scores? What if students aren’t reading at grade level, or need remedial courses? Are teachers paying liability insurance? Are (public) schools going out of business? How easy is it to fire a teacher? The answer to the last question is known: “not very”.
  • Length of relationship. Consider your relationship with your doctor or lawyer. First, these are very personal relationships. Unless there’s a nurse or new doctor-in-training, when you’re being examined physically it’s just you and the doc. Unless a paralegal or a steno is in the room you and your lawyer can have private conversations about anything. Second, these relationships are normally long-term. You don’t actually want to switch GPs and attorneys with any kind of frequency. Now consider a teacher. It is rare that, before graduating from high school, a student has a teacher for more than one year. In college, many students only have a teacher for a single semester. And this says nothing about how “deep” the relationship between teacher and student is…though one can guess how substantial it is. Do we see this as problematic?

In conclusion, teachers have less training than doctors and lawyers (by a LONG shot); there is no demand for teachers to state or display their credentials; there is little to no way to choose the teacher your child has; there is no systematic way of measuring the quality of a given teacher, which among other things has made it almost impossible to fire any which are not any good (and since you can’t choose teachers that means they are still “practicing” their trade…potentially on your children); last, there is the fact that the teacher/student relationship is predominantly capped at one year–making their long term positive effectiveness/impact questionable at best. Until these aspects are changed, there really is no way to compare teachers to doctors and lawyers.

2 thoughts on “Teachers as Doctors or Lawyers

  1. How do you judge whether doctors, lawyers, or teachers are effective. I know good and bad in all three professions. If you do or don’t like them depends on you and your experience(s). None of them are perfect. You can choose alternatives for all of them. And yes, teachers can be fired … it is just convenient to blame them. How about home school or online school or no school … just go learn a skill.

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