Downplaying the Teaching Profession: How Can We Change Our Ways?

If you haven’t read Jeff Charbonneau’s recent EdWeek post calling for teachers to elevate the teaching profession by emphasizing their own expertise, read it now. He suggests that teachers downplay their achievements because of pressure (self-imposed, and sometimes enforced by other teachers) to create a humble persona. Carbonneau admits that he still feels somewhat uncomfortable naming his own achievements:

I am supposed to proudly and confidently say, “My name is Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 US National Teacher of the Year and Top 50 Finalist for the 2015 Global Teacher Prize”.

But as soon as the words come out, it feels as though I have just broken a professional code — a code that says above all else, teachers are humble servants to their students, parents, administrators, community, and society.

The teaching profession certainly has a PR problem, as Carbonneau notes, and I agree that teachers have the power to improve public discourse and elevate their status in the eyes of policymakers and community members. However, Carbonneau’s solution — “communicate about [your] work, not as humble servants, but as a confident professionals” — may be too simplistic, because it assumes that all teachers (men and women) enjoy similar experiences in the workplace. It ignores the fact that women educators may face more backlash for promoting their own work.

As Joan Williams writes in Psychology Today:

“A woman who trumpets her own achievements is violating the expectation that she is community-oriented rather than focused on individual reward, which can lead to bias and discrimination.”

Teachers are expected to be humble, and women are expected to be “modest.” According to a 2010 Psychology of Women Quarterly study, women who self-promote are seen as “less likable…[and may be seen as] more dominant and arrogant than self-promoting men, whose behavior is consistent with stereotypic expectation” (Moss-Racusin 187). Women, who make up the majority of the teaching workforce, might decline to self-promote because they anticipate negative reactions.

Given this, I wonder what concrete steps can we take to minimize the possibility of eye rolls and snickers from colleagues, parents, community members when teachers talk about their work? How can we share our achievements safely, and what can we do to ensure that our colleagues won’t face professional risks when they share their achievements?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Advocate for your peers and celebrate their success. Women are less likely to face backlash when they promote others rather than themselves. What would happen if all teachers spoke highly of their colleagues’ achievements and professional expertise?
  2. Stop asking “is this person self-promoting?” As Bill Ferriter writes in a 2008 Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) post: “If we are passionate about elevating teaching as a profession, should we begin to openly recognize excellence and push for more ‘horn-tooting’ within our ranks?  Can we really argue that we’re a profession when we’re not willing to admit that some of us do this job better than others?”
  3. Blog, Tweet, apply for grants and fellowships. Encourage colleagues to do the same. Then, repeat step 1.
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