Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

Teaching is one of the oldest of the professions. It has a record of eminence in the names of those who have followed it–philosophers, scholars, scientists, men of affairs–second to no other calling. It has a present and future importance for society, in the preservation and development of the state, second to none. It demands in aptitude and in the generous quality of human wisdom a high endowment, and in preparation (at the standard) an arduous and exacting training. With such a history and position, the profession of teaching should be one of the most honorable of professional employments. It is, judged by common repute, one of the least honorable. As all men know, the teacher (college professor or district schoolmistress) is everywhere regarded as a legitimate subject of a kind of public patronizing–as if teachers were necessarily marked by a certain childishness of mind, because of their preoccupation with the young. Such a point of view must have its causes, which are certainly of importance for those who are in the profession to understand not merely with a view to bettering their own reputation, but with a view to overcoming whatever defects in the character of their profession may justify the reputation.

For, frankly, teachers. everywhere know that there is some justification for the public attitude understanding by “justification” an honest and intelligent human motive. This begins and ends in the fact that the attitude is in so considerable a measure shared by teachers themselves. The public but takes them at their own self-appraisement. There is no human trait quite so impossible to conceal as is one’s estimate of oneself; your conceited man proclaims his quality as upon a placard, and the broken in spirit is never to be mistaken. It is, too, the most natural thing in the world (ask for a job and you will discover it) to judge another at his own valuation, which means that it is at least well to have such good conceit as knowledge of one’s powers warrants. And this is just what the teaching profession lacks; it is humble and spiritless in its own self-esteem, and is taken in a like mode by the public. The first great reform needed among teachers is conviction of the importance and pride in the accomplishment of their work.

Of course there are objective reasons for this subjective defect. Everybody is familiar with them; educational discussions always return to them. I refer to the forms of preparation for and the manner of recruiting the profession; to the questions of salary, pension, tenure; to the problem of “feminization,” which is serious primarily because it tends to make teaching a temporary chore rather than a life work; to the diffuse organization and lack of professional spirit of teachers, as compared with men in other employments. Each of these factors is in the nature of a real social problem, and each tends to weaken the power and deteriorate the work of teaching, while all of them together are contributory to the one great fundamental defect–the weak professional self-respect of teachers. Once this is reformed, the public standing of school employes will right itself.

But undoubtedly the reform of spirit must follow upon some program for the solution of the besetting problems. I do not think it necessary that the solutions be fully reached in order that the profession be born into a new and healthier consciousness; there need be but their clear formulation (perhaps in the shape of a platform, such as politicians employ); this, of itself, would tend to create spirit. And it is of the possibility of such a teachers’ platform, conceived in the broadest way, that I would speak.

Its prime article should surely be a clear expression of the teacher’s conception of the meaning of education in society. There should be a statement of the place of liberal training in the whole educational life of the state; of the place and justification of vocational training, and especially of its relationship to the great labor problems that are shaking the world; of the relation and meaning of “secondary” and “higher” education, and of the modes in which a democratical government should select candidates for the latter. On these matters I have already expressed or implied my own views; but I believe that a formal enouncement, say from Nebraska teachers as a body, and from American teachers as a body, and again from the teaching profession of all the allied democracies, represented in a great congress–that such an enouncement would be of the greatest weight in the public mind and of the highest significance to teachers themselves. We all believe that the world is on the eve of a vital reconstruction, affecting the whole ideal of life; and we should realize that this reconstruction makes not only an unexampled demand upon the teachers of men, but that it offers the teaching profession such an opportunity for habilitation as it has never. yet seen. In the generation that is to create the new life the teachers should be leaders.

But first we must clear away the dust of the past. And I should follow, in my platform, the enouncement of principles by specific “planks” dealing with the venerable ills which beset us. Among these (to take the problems in the order in which I cited them above), there would be first a plank calling for a state-wide consideration of the qualifications to be demanded of teachers and of the modes of their certification already in the statute books, for it is surely time that the whole matter be overhauled. There is red tape to be raveled out, and common sense to be injected in, and a kind of general rule to be held before all eyes to the effect that if it be not strictly true that “teachers are born and not made,” it is at least true that they must be born with proper endowment before they can be made with proper finish.

The questions of salary, tenure, pay, are intimately related to the others–indeed, are rather dependent upon other reforms than determinants of them. Mere salary or wage increases are of little moment unless they be accompanied by such a toning-up of professional standards and such a growth of professional spirit as will justify them. Financial returns are, after all, in a broad way reflective of social valuations; teachers must raise the valuation first. However, for the plank’s sake, there should be an effort to name a fair scale, in all the branches of the teaching service.

The problem of feminization is really only a special phase of the problem of temporary ‘tenure, which is, I suspect, more than any other one thing at the root of the discomforts that professionally beset teachers. For out of this temporary tenure grow a number of evils. There is, first, the fact that the teacher is not an organic member of the community which he serves. He is a passing citizen, a missionary at best, a tramp at worst. This is the height of absurdity, for there is no profession where the demand for a long and intimate service is more real. We look upon the “family physician” as an institution; for the reason that the good doctor must know not only the symptoms of disease, but the habits of health and the bodily constitutions of his patients. How much more should this be the case with the physician of the mind–slowest of all human functions in developing and hardest of all to measure and diagnose? Moreover, if the teacher be in the community what ideally he should be, a leader in its whole intellectual life, he can become this only through a long familiarity with it and with its needs, and that means only through becoming a part of it. The ideal schoolmaster is the man who knows the youth from infancy upward, who knows the parents, who knows the nature and impulses which in each community give individuality and color to the local society. Such a man or woman must pass a lifetime with a school. Another defect of passing tenure is that it tends to over-emphasize the superintendence, the system side, of school conduct. When teachers become differentiated into groups, the one composed entirely of the long-tried and the other of the temporary “job holders,” it becomes impossible to avoid bureaucracy; the first-named group will inevitably control and prescribe for the second, taking away the whole spirit of independence and all incentive to invention–in other words, rooting “Americanism” from out the craft. This, it can be imagined, is but a poor preparation for the preservation of our national spirit.

Now to deal with these evils, I should favor a plank, or series of them, something in this order. First, a formal organization of teachers, not in loose associations, but in self-discriminating societies, having requirements and grades; as, for example, there should be at least a grade of master teachers and a grade of apprentice teachers, with differing professional privileges attaching to each one. The idea would be to distinguish those who are making a life work of teaching from those who undertake it experimentally; for surely it is the former who should set the standard of the profession. Second–feminism again–there should be a plank encouraging the employment of married women, not as against those who are professional, but as against those who are obviously but candidates for marriage (in itself a legitimate and respectable social condition, but not conducive to the advancement of teaching). Third, there should be a call for the more public recognition of the teacher in the community which he serves, both through a legal improvement of his position (school-board fiat is not necessarily the best or sole ground for employment; there might be a county superintendent’s ratification or veto of local action, with a possible referendum to the community); and again through local or state-fund salary guarantees as a reward for long service.

But all such planks and the whole of such a platform would have to do with external changes which could be of little significance if unaccompanied by internal revelation. What it all comes to is this: the teacher must find in his work itself such an interest and such a field for achievement that he will be ever upon his mettle to realize its possibilities. There must be more independence and less superintendence; more invention and less convention; more imagination and less habit. The plank toward a division of teachers into masters and apprentices would look toward this; for at present the great body of teachers in the public schools are all treated as apprentices, and few, even of the long-experienced, are given master work to do. The plank leading toward permanency of tenure should look in the same direction. For if a person of imagination and trained observation, such as a teacher should be, were to be placed in any American community with a life work there in view, it would become not only his duty, but the fascination of a lifetime, to come to such an understanding of that community as should reveal in it an image of all human nature and of all the world. This is no passing fantasy. The monuments of English literature number many a work of poetry and fiction devoted to the interpretation of village communities, and there is not a township in our west but calls for its Gray or Austin or Hawthorne. Furthermore, if the interest be scientific, there is in every community material for social studies that should be not only of local, but of state and national value. We all know what missionaries have done in the way of “opening up” remote quarters of earth to the knowledge of mankind. The process of “opening up” is never completed while men continue to be born, and it should be a part of the teacher’s expectation to be an interpreter of human nature in whatever community his task is set. Such an interest was that of Shakespeare, such that of George Eliot. And can any ask from life a more inspiring gift?