For the majority of my formative years, my father, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in August, was a military physician – a colonel as well as an obstetrician- gynecologist in the United States Air Force, and this fact set our family on many a life-changing adventure as we moved around the country and the world. One tour of duty was particularly impacting: Dad was the chief of staff at the USAF Hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany for my pivotal years of 5th through 10th grade. I feel I can honestly say that I grew up in Germany. I am eternally grateful to my parents for their wisdom and foresight in enrolling me in German Gymnasium – a somewhat elite educational track as distinguished from trade school, rather than placing me in the more quotidian American military education system. There I experienced many things that would forever shift my worldview – fluency in a new language, entrée into a new culture, lifelong friends with whom I’m close to this very day. One impression that struck me then and has stayed with me for the past fifty years was the European attitude towards the profession of teaching. It was one bordering on reverence; hats were doffed, heads were nodded in deference when a local Herr Lehrer or Frau Lehrerin passed by. We students stood when called upon and quickly learned to feign attention when the real thing wouldn’t materialize. This veneration for teachers felt so foreign to me – nothing like anything I’d experienced in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Anchorage, Alaska or San Antonio, Texas. Nothing like I would come to experience in Seattle, Washington.
This past winter, it fell to me to attend a PNAIS Workshop entitled Framework of Teaching, which promised exposure to, if not expertise in robust teacher evaluation. My reading in preparation for attendance brought home my own middle school observations about the teaching profession. One passage particularly struck me:
Teaching has struggled for some time with its role in the world of professions. Generally speaking, it is neither as prestigious nor as well paid as other occupations, such as medicine, accounting, architecture, and law, which are openly recognized as professions. Many historical reasons account for this situation; teaching is characterized by high degrees of government oversight, bureaucratic organization, and low status. Teaching has been treated – and, to some degree, treated itself – as a job, with almost an assembly-line mentality, in which teachers follow a “script” that has been designed by someone else, presumably an expert.
However, when one considers the work of teaching and compares that work to the defining characteristics of a profession, it is clear that teaching is, indeed, a profession. For example, all professions have a body of knowledge that is shared by the community of professionals; so does teaching. Teachers apply their professional knowledge in making hundreds of decisions daily, often under conditions of uncertainty and frequently under pressure of time. Furthermore, teaching, like other professions, occurs at the intersection of theoretical and practical considerations. That is, both the theory and the practice of teaching inform each other. And lastly, teachers, like members of other professions, conduct themselves in accordance with high ethical standards of professional practice.
This consideration got me to musing as to why teachers are sometimes assigned short shrift in American culture. While teaching may not be the “oldest profession,” it’s definitely on the list of noblest professions. And yet, our society’s desultory treatment of educators can partially be blamed for the impressively high attrition rate among teachers today. I recall, with a tinge of sadness, the day my partner decided to abandon her teaching career (after no small investment in a Masters in Teaching program and six years of guiding high school students towards impressive fluency in French) to become a criminal appeals attorney; her rationale: I’m tired of a profession where everybody thinks they know how to do my job better than I do. At the time I thought she was exaggerating, but from time to time, I do see her point.
Educational psychologist, Lee Schulman, commented: Teaching is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…the only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room during a natural disaster.
Film director, Stephen Fraer adds: All the biggest miracles take place in classrooms. Nothing happens without teachers.
Fraer’s words become real for me every morning at SGS as I pop my head into each classroom to collect attendance. It’s a daily glimpse into good energy, calibrated focus, appreciative inquiry and, yes, no small amount of inspiring enthusiasm, as our skillful teachers expertly guide your daughters through their middle school education. And now in the New Year, as I gear up to conduct our formal teacher observations and evaluations, I am acutely aware of the root word – value – in that endeavor, for the faculty and staff at Seattle Girls’ School is the finest group of educators I’ve had the privilege to work with in the past forty years. It’s as if each and every one of them has sworn allegiance to Maya Angelou’s assertion that:
People [read Students] will forget what you said, People will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.
Our teachers at Seattle Girls’ School are about the business of making our students feel like the empathetic leaders and lifelong learners we are committed to fostering. SGS faculty members teach by example and are the invaluable aspect of a Seattle Girls’ School education.