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A century later, debate over role of teachers goes on

Nearly 100 years ago, educators argued about whether they should be treated as civil servants or as professionals – and differing views persist

By Connie Goddard, doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago

August 1, 2004

While accusations of vote fraud and misappropriation of power have attracted more attention, the basic issue in the election for the presidency of the Chicago Teachers Union remains as it was before the contested runoff on June 11: Are teachers professionals, or are they civil servants?

If challenger Marilyn Stewart, candidate of the party that controlled the union for three decades, received more votes in June, she did so by capitalizing on members' discontent with the contract negotiated by last term's president Deborah Lynch, who remains in office.

A reformer who involved the union in professional development and in helping to manage several schools, Lynch was criticized by her opponent as being too little concerned about member benefits.

Nearly 100 years ago to the day – July 1 – when the leadership change was set to take place, early Chicago teachers' union leader Margaret Haley gave a notable speech that helps explain why CTU members are still undecided about their role. Speaking to the National Education Association – then an elite group of college presidents and district superintendents – Haley explained why her fellow schoolteachers should organize.

What she said then illuminates the difference between these two conceptions of the teachers' role: professionals who assume some responsibility for the outcome of their efforts, or unionized civil servants who do not.

When Haley gave her speech, urban school boards and superintendents were taking from teachers the responsibility for what children learned and how; they insisted that largely male administrators, not the female teachers, were the trained educators. Women were to do as they were told, not as they thought. And in Chicago – a city famed for extremes – the contrast between the two was most stark.

Haley claimed that teachers knew their responsibility, but that their authority for carrying it out was being eroded. She put the teachers' classroom work on a high plane: The "fundamental object of the public school in a democracy is to preserve and develop the democratic ideal." The teacher's role was "freeing intelligence" so their students could participate fully in a democracy.

But forces beyond the classroom were hampering the teachers' ability to do this, Haley charged. Corruption limited the revenue available to keep class size under 50 students and pay Chicago teachers what their peers were earning in other cities. The condescension teachers faced was equally damaging. The Board of Education, she claimed, was "factoryizing education," making the teacher an automaton.

Schoolteachers are still often subject to the same pressures by board members and administrators who do not necessarily understand what happens in a classroom.

Chicago teachers today are largely unaware of Haley's efforts. Sadly, they also know little of her mentor, Ella Flagg Young, who spent decades as a teacher of teachers before becoming Chicago school superintendent in 1909.

In 1899 Young resigned as deputy school superintendent to protest the autocratic ways of the system's new head. Close supervision – the male administrators' formula for improving the efficiency of the female schoolteacher – was counterproductive, she argued.

While Young fought for an intellectually independent teaching force, Haley fought to establish the nation's foremost association of teachers, the Chicago Teachers' Federation. She, too, insisted that teachers needed intellectual and instructional independence to do their work well – along with a salary that reflected their responsibilities.

In her 1904 NEA talk, Haley claimed that teachers needed two kinds of associations: one professional, to define their aspirations as Young did, and the other to agitate for the means essential to meeting those aspirations. The first would provide a natural check on the selfish motive of the other.

Haley's dual-purpose organizational model helps explain June's runoff CTU election. Deborah Lynch's goal is to move the CTU – a successor to the CTF – toward being an organization that can effectively do both. The party of challenger Stewart is not interested in that approach. For her, educational outcomes are not the union's responsibility; service to members is.

Long treated as civil servants, CTU members have tended to behave that way – as reactive rather than as proactive. A century ago, Margaret Haley made an argument that today's board and teachers would be well-advised to recall: "The atmosphere in which it is easiest to teach is the atmosphere in which it is easiest to learn."

Ella Flagg Young made a similar claim: "You cannot separate the life of the children and the life of the teacher."

Young tried for decades to bring teachers into the decision-making process. But in the end, she was forced out of the superintendent's office by a Board of Education that thought she was too supportive of the teachers' union. Young's ouster and the board's continued corruption and condescension taught teachers to stand together as workers, insisting that seniority alone differentiated among them. The civil-servant model of teaching won out over the professional ideal.

But 2004 is not 1904, the year of Haley's speech, nor is it 1915, the year Young was fired. Though some teachers assert that Lynch's inattention to detail is as much an issue as her vision, a century of poor treatment may have dissuaded a slim majority from giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Fortunately, the Chicago Community Trust, Civic Committee of the Commercial Club and other reformers recognize that student performance is tied to teacher performance. Reports and initiatives they have generated recently recognize that no improvements will work unless teachers help to devise and implement them. Lynch supports that vision.

Teachers interested in real professionalization might be inspired by Haley's century-old speech. The system retains many admirable teachers, though they garner fewer headlines.

If Stewart wins the next runoff, she will have a chance to display more professional vision than her faction has shown in the past. But if her leadership provides three more years of narrow self-interest, it might convince a majority of her teachers that the civil-servant approach has outlived its usefulness.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune