Schoolteacher is a book that is referenced by pretty much every other scholarly book on education I’ve ever read. It’s a — the! — sociological study of k-12 teaching.
It’s also a book that I failed to read some three times before recently pushing myself through to the finish line.
It’s not that the book isn’t insightful. It is very insightful, the most revealing explanation of forces I’ve felt as a teacher that I’ve ever encountered. (More on that in a second.) It’s also not that the book is boring, or that it’s overly technical, and the dynamics that Dan Lortie describes aren’t even so complicated.
So I don’t really have a theory as to why I found it such a slog to get through my first three times.
What made the difference this last time was simple: I just skipped the boring parts. That took me to the second half of the book. That’s the part where Lortie starts including huge blocks of quotes from the teachers he interviewed, and these sections were much more fun to read:
Well, years ago I hit children. Of course I wouldn’t, you can’t do that now, but I have done that which I felt badly about. Recently I have taken work I didn’t like, I’ve just crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket. And afterward I have thought what a terrible thing to do because maybe that was the child’s best effort.
Yeah! Now we’re cooking.
So I read the second half that has all the interviews and then slogged back through that first half, though having a good deal of knowledge of Lortie’s argumentative strategy and goals.
Incidentally, reading this book for me felt eerily like reading Racism Without Racists, another sociology tract that I found impossibly boring until I skipped to the juicy quotes.
Sociologists, if you’re listening: don’t hide your quotes!
Lortie begins with the history of the teaching profession in America. Except he’s not actually interested in telling this story, he just wants to point out that a lot of things haven’t changed since the beginning of teaching in America.
So, teaching begins with a single teacher in a schoolhouse; teaching still happens with a single teacher in a closed room. In the beginning, it wasn’t that hard to become a teacher; it’s still not that hard. Schools used to be managed locally, by citizens; they still are. Things more-or-less stay the same in teaching.
This line of argument has been ruined by would-be-reformers who say ridiculous things about “21st century learning” or “the out-dated Prussian factory model of teaching.” But Lortie has a good point. How much has teaching changed?
Put it this way: if a 19th century teacher had a time machine and traveled to 2017, how long would it take them to get the hang of modern teaching? The biggest issue we’d have would probably be cutting-out the beatings and extreme (for us) emotional cruelties and shaming.
Actually, Lortie has something interesting to say about this too:
During the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, laws and school custom changed; increasingly sharp limits were placed on the teacher’s use of physical punishment. There is a paradox in this transformation of values and practices: the teacher’s use of physical coercion was limited at about the same time compulsory education became the rule.
The presumption that students attended school voluntarily became void just when teachers were forced maintain their authority through persuasion and other leadership qualities. Discipline took on a different coloration under such conditions: teachers had to learn how to ‘motivate’ students regardless of whether they or their parents wished them to be in school.
Granting the premise that teaching has changed less than your typical profession (e.g. farming), why hasn’t it?
Lortie calls this conservatism, and he argues that resistance to change built in to the profession at pretty much every level. Students go to school and decide to become teachers. If they hated school, though, they don’t become teachers. These school-loving dorks partially choose teaching because of the service element, love of schools, and flexible hours. (“Teachers are sensitive to criticism about this.”) Is this a recipe for radical employees who are eager to rewrite the rules of school? No, Lortie argues, this is a recipe for a profession of people who basically like teaching the way they were taught.
I wasn’t so convinced by this. Sure, teachers go into teaching because they like the job as it is. But isn’t this true of literally every other chosen profession? If you go into medicine presumably you tend to be ok with the way medicine is presently delivered to patients. Maybe the professions that should experience the most radical employees are the ones that aren’t chosen, then?
The other plank of conservatism is the lack of strong teacher preparation. We sort of slide into teaching, mostly, even if we go through traditional teacher training. That’s because teacher training doesn’t fundamentally alter our prior ideas about teaching. Lortie calls it [THIS IS THE PHRASE THAT EVERYONE CITES PERPETUALLY FROM SCHOOLTEACHER] the “apprenticeship of observation.”
This might be a good point to mention that the book was published in 1975. Lortie keeps on mentioning that school unions are just starting to collectively bargain and the Women’s Liberation Movement is shaking things up. If you don’t believe something that Lortie says, you can always dismiss it on the grounds that it’s outdated.
The inherent conservatism of teaching would be much more worrisome to me if I had the perspective of a reformer. I don’t, though. I’m much more interested in the lived experiences of teachers. So it was the second half of the book that interested me more.
Before reading Schoolteacher I was familiar with the idea that teaching is a “special but shadowed” profession. (“Special but shadowed” is another catchy Lortie phrase.) To me, “special but shadowed” meant that in the eyes of outsiders teaching is both valuable and undesirable work. Lawyers have reputations for slime, traders for greed, but teachers are saintly in the eyes of others. But we’re also seen as refugees from more competitive jobs where we couldn’t cut it, and the money we make (good but not great) reflects this status.
(Interestingly, Lortie actually finds that a lot of his teachers are refugees from more competitive professions: “about a third of Five Towns [the district he interviewed] teachers reported that they had wanted to go into another line of work but were unable to do so because of external constraints.”)
It’s other people who see teaching as less-than. But after reading this book, what I came to think was that teachers see ourselves as doing special but shadowed work as well.
You can see this in the things teachers told Lortie in their interviews. Over and over again in these interviews, teachers reveal themselves to have work ideals that they aren’t able to live up to with any regularity.
Math teachers these days talk a lot about reaching every single student. Teachers in Lortie’s study shared these universalistic ideals too. To see how teacher expectations align with these ideals, Lortie asks a clever but indirect question — Please recall some occasion when you felt especially proud of something you achieved as a teacher. Please tell me about it.
If our expectations aligned with our ideals, a good day of teaching would be a day when the whole class understood something. But teachers, Lortie found, invariably mention successes with individual students rather than whole-group:
The most provocative difference between responses to the pride question and responses to other questions lies in the scope of outcomes claimed by the teacher. In speaking about their ideals, respondents emphasized reaching all students; some teachers, in fact, made such universality the focus of their answers. But the occasions associated with pride, in all but one instance, involved a single student or a small number of students. Pride, in short, is generated by ‘elitist’ outcomes, which are overtly rejected.
When Lortie asked teachers directly for their ultimate aims (I know it’s not easy to state clearly, but would you try to explain to me what you try most to achieve as a teacher? What are you really trying to do?), teachers talk about learning and achievement. But when he probed teacher expectations in indirect ways — Describe an outstanding teacher — teachers responded as if the best you could as a teacher is to nail the interpersonal element:
The elaborations elicited by direct questions concentrated on the ultimate outcomes of instruction, on learning changes in students. But when we ask teacher to describe outcomes achieved by outstanding colleagues, they emphasize results of a proximate and relational nature.
So on and so on. Name an ideal of the profession. How about “fulfilling each child’s potential?”
School systems often advertise their goals as including, for example, ‘the full realization of every child’s potential.’ It is clear that the aims of classroom teachers are less exalted.
I had always known that schools are placed in impossible positions by citizens and society. Schools are tasked with fixing democracy, creating citizens, Americanizing immigrants, training the workforce for everything and nothing, solving inequality, battling racism, being the ultimate solution to segregation and a million other problems that adults find intractable in larger society.
What I hadn’t considered was what this looks like for teachers. I had sort of imagined that teachers resist all of this, or at least that we understood what we can hope to achieve in our work.
What Lortie is saying is that teachers aren’t rejecting this rhetoric. We incorporate it in the form of our ideals and values. But we aren’t able to live up to them, because the form of the work makes living up to these values impossible.
You might wonder why teachers don’t just reject the crap rhetoric. Reach every child. Create a love for learning. Help children become curious people. If the lived reality of teaching is that — at best — it’s impossible to know if you’ve ever achieved any of these goals, shouldn’t the profession re-calibrate its expectations?
I think for Lortie the answer is about the way teachers are dependent on schools as institutions for our work. There are no independent classroom teachers, like doctors in private practice. Every teacher depends on being employed by a school, and every teacher has to suck it up because status-wise we’re controlled by administrators who are controlled by superintendents who are controlled by parents who are part of the same crazy democratic society that came up with all these unreasonable expectations in the first place. It’s a nice story, if one that I don’t know how to confirm.
In any event, though, here’s what we end up with: teachers are in professional tension. We have sky-high ideals and we also recognize that they’re rarely met.
My favorite chapter in the book describes this as “endemic uncertainty.” We never know if we’re doing a good job. The ideals are rarely fully achievable, so how do we know if we’re doing a good job? “Uncertainty is the lot of those who teach,” he says, and it’s a very good line.
How hard is it for teachers to figure out if we’re doing a good job? So hard that they had to change their questions about assessing outcomes because teachers kept on losing it and walking out of the interviews. Even with their revised question, prompting teachers to think about whether we’re achieving anything leads to some of the most depressing meditations possible on teaching:
I feel very inadequate and hopeless at times.
I do wonder, at the end of every single year, how much good have I done? And it’s hard to see.
You can go on for an eternity with nothing. They seem to be regressing.
This is all especially troubling for teachers because, for a lot of us, it’s the emotional rewards of teaching that mean the most to us.
A finding of Lortie’s is that teachers are focused on the present. The future and the past provide less consolation to us than they might be in other professions. We can’t look forward to that big raise, and we can’t try for lasting achievements. A lot of us won’t last a career in the classroom. As for the past, because of how easy it is to become a teacher and how uncertain we are of ever having achieved anything, we’re also not inclined to feel especially good about what we’ve already done. That puts a lot of pressure on the now. And right now, all we have is the kids in our room. When it’s going great we feel good. When it’s going badly we feel like crap. The past doesn’t matter, neither does the future. We’re present-oriented, and that means we’re chasing the rewards of the present.
But because of the endemic uncertainties of teaching, those rewards are rare.
This was the new, big idea I got while reading Lortie: teachers tend to be divided on ourselves. Our ideals and our expectations are majorly out of whack. And, if you believe Andy Hargreaves, this causes teachers to experience a tremendous amount of guilt.
This idea is one that I think helps me understand a bunch of things that lately I’ve been finding puzzling about teaching.
WARNING: This is just me making stuff up.
Teaching Puzzle #1: Teachers often talk like educational progressives, but teach like traditionalists. This is weird, when you think about it. Why talk about what “we discovered” in class if what actually happened was you asked a bunch of leading questions and one kid answered them?
This makes sense, though, because teacher ideals are different than teacher expectations. We should expect teachers to talk in the language of our ideals, especially when we’re around administrators, coaches or parents that represent those ideals.
Teaching Puzzle #2: Traditionalists about teaching make a big deal out of their differences with progressives, even though their classroom practices seem pretty indistinguishable from progressive practices.
But this makes sense too. Traditionalists reject the ideals of teaching and the rhetoric that results from those ideals. For example, you sometimes get people debating whether every child can do math at a high level is true or not. People who think that it’s really important to reject this are trying to free themselves of the oppressive, guilt-inducing ideals of the profession.
These seem like the two options for teachers who try to talk about teaching: reject the ideals or reject experience.
Another thing that people take from Lortie is his observation that, unlike other professions, teachers haven’t developed a big body of professional knowledge about how to teach. Teachers all pretty much agree that you learn to teach on the job, and that seems to be pretty much the best way to do it.
Everyone has an explanation for why this is. Lortie’s is complex. Teachers are focused on the present (presentism); they’re expecting to leave after a few years, or they’re expecting to take breaks from the job; they’re more-or-less happy with the way things are (conservatism); they don’t see other teachers teach very often (individualism); they don’t even know what success looks like.
Lortie doesn’t say this (or at least not strongly) but I think the ideals/expectation gap is a big factor. It’s the gap that produces that potent cocktail of guilt and doubt. Our belief in the ideals of teaching creates a huge difference between what we think success in teaching is supposed to look like and what we experience daily. What teachers really have is a set of tools we’ve developed for making painful compromises on our ideals.
When professors/teacher educators/consultants/coaches talk about teaching, it’s always about how to reach those ideals. (See: ambitious teaching.) So we get tips for improving our teaching, and even if they work teachers don’t believe that they work because we still haven’t met the ideals. We’re never succeeding, so we never know that we know anything.
Traditionalists say, great, time to throw out the ideals.
But who wants to throw out their ideals? Not the majority of teachers. The majority of teachers really do think that the goal of school should be to help every child discover a love of learning. (Hey, I believe that too.) So the traditionalist option is simply not available for the majority of teachers.
Traditionalists say, OK, let’s change the culture and make it an option. (They don’t say it like that, but that’s what I’d imagine some would say.)
The cost of producing technical knowledge: either your ideals or your reality.
There’s a missing choice in all this, I think. What if great teaching is about finding great ways to navigate the space between your ideals and reality?
Call it elevated nitty-gritty talk about teaching.
It’s not possible to reach every student in your class; this is an unreachable ideal. But it is an ideal — reaching more students is better. What’s are ways to move in that direction?
Everybody talks as if the goal of teaching is maximizing knowledge; it’s not, and teachers know this. We care about relationships in ways both selfish and not. We want kids to be happy in school. The ideals of schooling point towards the future — but teachers are focused on the present. This puts us in tension, but it’s a tension that we ought to have as we both want to prepare students for their futures while also helping them through school in humane and kind ways. This tension isn’t incidental to the work of teaching. It is the work of teaching. The point of teaching is balance. What are especially good ways to find this balance?
We want kids to learn stuff, but we also want them to have a love of learning. We don’t want learning to be painful. If the knowledge-maximizing teaching method turned out to be hooking up a small charge to a kid’s ears and lightly shocking them, I’d rather teach inefficiently, thank you very much. Teachers mostly don’t want learning to be painful. What are ways of teaching that balance the tension between difficulty and pleasure in learning?
(If you’re saying that you can have both, congratulations, you are speaking on behalf of the ideals of teaching.)
I think teachers could develop technical knowledge that looked like elevated nitty-gritty knowledge.
You have to assume, in the history of teaching, that pretty much everything has been tried. I’m sure there’s a good reason why this couldn’t possibly work.
Part of the reason why it might not work is because of the pressures on teachers to fully accept the ideals of schooling. What parent wants to hear that teachers consign some kids to failure (not what we mean) and what administrator wants to defend that sort of talk? And those who hope to influence teachers — reformers, teacher educators, consultants and researchers — fiercly defend the ideals of the profession at every conference and in every article. We might turn Lortie’s conservatism on its head here — these are precisely people who elected to leave teaching to promote the ideals.
But what about in teacher spaces online? Freed somewhat from the pressures of the ideals, might we find a little bit of space between the nitty gritty of the classroom and unrealistic dreams?
I have five books on my shelf that are all about why it’s so hard for reformers to change teaching*. They all draw heavily on Lortie, and it seems to me that this is what Schoolteacher is ultimately about.
* Tinkering Toward Utopia; Someone Has To Fail; From the Ivorty Tower to the Schoolhouse; Changing Teachers, Changing Times; Inside Teaching. I haven’t seriously read all of these.
I don’t know if I agree with everything in Schoolteacher, and I’m definitely sure I didn’t follow everything Lortie said. The book can get a bit listy at times, especially in those opening chapters.
Anyone who’s interested in changing teaching at any level ought to take a look at Schoolteacher. It has a lot of ideas, and a lot of pretty convincing quotes to support the latter chapters. I wasn’t always sure I could follow his arguments carefully enough to be sure they were true, but that didn’t bother me much. Lortie was trying to open up brand new space for others to explore, and based on my bookshelf and my read, it seems he succeeded.