Teaching is the mechanism by which skills and knowledge are imparted to an individual, and society has entrusted teachers with the responsibility of providing the populace with the skills and knowledge deemed necessary to engage as citizens and lead productive and meaningful lives. To be effective, teaching must be interesting, stimulating, challenging, and satisfying, and it must result in learning that is culturally significant, is valued by society at large, and prepares individuals to meet the needs of their changing world.
The American public school system was built on the premise that the quality of education children receive can have a tremendous impact on their quality of life and their ability to become contributing members of society, especially given the demands of globalization in the twenty-first century. As the U.S. educational system struggles to deal with demands and controlling influences imposed by politicians, businesspeople, and special interest groups, as well as with the ever-increasing diversity in today’s schools, it is important to understand the history of the American teaching profession in order to better understand the current and future milieu of teaching. This entry examines early teaching, development of the system of teaching credentials in the United States, the debate surrounding the professionalization of teaching, and issues that have and will continue to affect teaching in the twenty-first century.
The earliest of educators were often members of the clergy, such as priests and rabbis, or were slaves from conquered states employed in the households of wealthy Greeks and Romans. In Greece, several of the most notable teachers of all time, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, emerged during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, generating foundations of teaching that are still used today. Although formal education in China dates back to 2000 BCE, in Europe, it was not until the Middle Ages that formal institutions of learning were established by the Roman Catholic Church.
According to some, formalized education in the United States was launched in 1647 with the passage of a Massachusetts law requiring each town of fifty or more families to establish a school. Fictional portrayals of early schooling would have many believe that teachers were young, single women, when the domain of teaching actually belonged almost exclusively to young men. For these young men, teaching was considered a means for social mobility for those who could not find work; however, it was also considered temporary work, with the majority of teachers leaving the field after only five years. It was not until the 1850s, a period commonly referred to as the “feminization of teaching,” that women began entering the teaching force in great numbers, the prevailing attitude being that women possessed the caring skills and attitudes necessary to nurture and guide young minds. Prior to this time, teachers were hired based upon the ability to control and dominate predominantly male students, and little formalized training was expected or required.
By the early twentieth century, teacher training institutions, such as normal schools, began to evolve into degree-granting institutions and colleges predominantly geared toward the preparation of elementary school teachers. Throughout the course of the twentieth century, states enacted legislation extending compulsory education through the age of sixteen. During this time, high school graduations escalated from a scant 6 percent to almost 88 percent, radically increasing the need for secondary school teachers equipped to teach select disciplines. This expansion of the American public school system created the need for more and more educators, and vast numbers of women sought teaching credentials to enter the field, mostly at the elementary school level. High schools, however, remained the province of male teachers.
Requirements set forth for teaching were modest up until the mid-nineteenth century. Getting a teaching job often necessitated little more than a review of the moral character of the individual, and, in some cases, a test of general knowledge and/or a test of basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. However, by 1867, most states required local testing for state certification for teaching. Teacher training was sporadic and varied; some localities offered their own programs, whereas others relied on teacher training institutes and colleges, such as Teachers College at Columbia University, founded in 1887. By the onset of the twentieth century, a wide range of bona fide teacher education undergraduate and graduate schools and programs emerged throughout the United States. Completion of teacher education coursework, which replaced local testing, became the means by which teaching certification was granted.
Many of these programs came under scrutiny in 1983 with the release of A Nation at Risk and again in 1996 with the release of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports by the U.S. Department of Education calling for educational reform. A Nation at Risk called for the establishment of more arduous national teacher preparation standards; the Commission’s report enacted six goals directly related to teaching and the professional development of teachers. Although few argue the merits of these goals, they have not been instituted everywhere. All fifty states and the District of Columbia require the licensing of public school teachers; however, the requirements for licensure vary by state. Licensing measures are intended to strengthen the quality of teaching, but the escalating shortage of teachers has forced many states and/or districts to implement alternative licensing measures to supplement the dwindling teaching workforce, particularly in large urban school districts.
Alternative, temporary, provisional, and/or emergency licensing programs allow individuals without preparation or licensure to teach. Such programs allow districts with high teacher vacancies to hire and retain uncertified or unlicensed teachers as a stopgap measure. Teacher shortages are prevalent in large urban schools; rural schools; regions in the South and West; and in specific subject areas, such as science, mathematics, and special and bilingual education. Alternative licensing programs for teaching are quite varied and include four to six-week courses, mentoring by a master teacher, and/or taking education courses to supplement a current degree. Even though other feasible measures to eradicate the teacher shortage have not been forthcoming, many believe that alternative licensing programs widen the chasm between raising teaching standards and staffing classrooms.
Teaching As A Profession
Schools are labor-intensive organizations, with 75 percent to 80 percent of schools’ budgets allocated for personnel cost, and how teachers are treated greatly affects their performances, personal satisfaction, and ultimately their decision to remain in a district or the teaching profession altogether. Since the early 1900s, those in teaching have fought for professional status; however, efforts in that area have proved fruitless for a variety of reasons. Many believe that the “feminization of teaching” in the 1850s left a legacy that the profession of teaching still endures to this day; that is, the stigmatization associated with the diminished stature of women in the workforce that imposes on teaching the categorization of little more than a domestic occupation requiring administrative control. Current demographics show that the composition of the field of teaching is 75.1 percent females and 24.9 percent males.
Others believe that teaching will remain an occupation or semi-profession until issues regarding control over the professional licensing of teachers, the competencies and qualifications for teaching, and the standards upon which licensing will be based are resolved. Meanwhile, the debate continues as teaching salaries remain noncompetitive with those of similarly educated individuals in other professions, an issue that serves to deter entry into or persistence in the field of teaching.
Teaching In The Twenty-First Century
The quality of education that children receive can have a tremendous impact on the quality of life they have and their ability to become contributing members of a global society. The ever-increasing diversity of American schools has added to the challenge, as the more diverse the group, the more complicated teaching becomes. Today in the United States, the field of education is struggling in a climate of change, criticism, and economic limits resulting in the steady erosion of confidence in schools.
In that vein, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was revised to become the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, an effort intended to improve the American public education system, and teaching was at the heart of the legislation. Among the provisions of the nearly 1,000-page NCLB bill was the directive that every child be taught by highly qualified teachers, as teacher subject-matter knowledge has been correlated with student learning. Teachers are deemed to have Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) status if they hold a bachelor’s degree in the subject area in which they teach, demonstrate subject-area knowledge of the subjects they are assigned to teach, and obtain full state teacher certification. All teachers were required to obtain HQT status by 2006; however, not all states were able to meet this mandate. Currently, teaching proficiency is being gauged by the results of standardized tests; schools persistently rated as failing, as indicated by test scores, are mandated to replace certain teachers, change the curriculum, or risk restructuring or state takeover. In NCLB, teaching is clearly viewed as both the cause and the solution to many societal problems facing America today.
Undoubtedly, many factors affect student achievement, and some of the more important factors are what teachers believe, know, and can do. However, teachers deal with a plethora of issues in their schools and classrooms over which they have no control. Limited English proficiency, special needs, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate classroom supplies, outdated textbooks, and increased violence are some of the factors affecting teaching daily. With the national emphasis on improved instruction, it is critical to recognize the complexity and importance of quality teaching for high-performing schools; however, it is difficult to attract and retain well-qualified teachers in schools labeled as failing.
NCLB has had a significant impact on teaching practices in many schools, as teachers are often required to teach to the test to avoid sanctions. Some believe that this has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and effective teaching practices, thus altering the school experience for students and teachers alike.
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