A Doctor, a Lawyer, and a Teacher Walk Onto a Plane

When the doctor and lawyer found out I had just finished a competition with three other finalists for National Teacher of the Year, the lawyer leaned in and asked, “So, how do you get along with the other finalists?” I rambled on for a few minutes about how wonderful they were.  He shook his head in disbelief. “Man, if there was a competition for Lawyer of the Year, we’d be poisoning each other’s drinks.”

On a flight home from the final stage of the National Teacher of the Year selection process, I found myself sandwiched between a doctor and a lawyer. We each talked about our profession—what we love about it, what’s hard about it, and how we get better.

When they found out that I had just finished a competition with three other finalists for National Teacher of the Year, the lawyer leaned in and asked, “So, how do you get along with the other finalists?” I rambled on for a few minutes about how wonderful they were, how close we had become, how much we respected one another and the great conversations we had been having over the past few days. The lawyer shook his head in disbelief.

“Man, if there was a competition for Lawyer of the Year, we’d be poisoning each other’s drinks.”

That plane conversation has become a parable for me about where teaching fits with other professions. Blue collar or white collar? An art or a science? A calling or a career?

The Third Profession

In many ways, we want teaching to become more like law and medicine. Take the intensive, rigorous preparation for physicians. There are no “emergency credentialing programs” for heart surgeons or general practitioners.

Teach For America (my path into teaching) has many strengths, but I’m dubious about the notion that if you’re really smart, motivated, and care deeply about children, you don’t need a degree in teaching to be good at it. Whenever I talk with someone who holds that belief, I ask, “Can smart, motivated people who care about kids become pediatricians after 6 weeks of intensive training?” I have never had someone say “yes.”

Teaching requires a level of expertise on par with the medical and legal professions. But from what my doctor friends tell me about their residencies, the medical profession has built a better fusion of theory and practice, a more structured system of mentoring, and the implicit understanding that you don’t go straight from college to the operating room.

Programs like Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership build a rigorous, residency-like structure into the teaching profession. The constructive criticism teachers-in-training receive from their mentors might be hard to hear sometimes, but the teachers come out stronger and the students benefit from more highly skilled teachers.

Medicine and law can learn from the teaching profession, too. Take the ethos of utter devotion to our students. I don’t know a single teacher who has not spent money out of pocket on school supplies, books, even food and clothing for our students. I’m sure there are doctors who dip into their personal funds on behalf of patients, too, but I doubt the number is so close to 100%.

Consider the lawyer’s comment that “we’d be poisoning each other’s drinks.” Teachers tend to be collaborative rather than competitive, sharing ideas, time, and resources with colleagues in our grade-level team or department. We focus more on our students’ needs than our own opportunities for advancement. In a society that reveres competition in everything from sports to business, that focus on collaboration is a critical professional code.

Teaching can become “the third profession,” a pillar equal to law and medicine in society’s eyes. It takes plenty of shifts—stronger teacher prep programs, a better balance of autonomy with accountability, opportunities for career advancement that don’t involve an eventual exit from the classroom, and a pay scale that reflects the level of expertise required to teach effectively.

But let’s not forget that we’re doing a lot right. The American public trusts teachers more than any other group involved in education. Several countries that out-perform us on international tests still look to us for how to teach creativity and innovation. And every one of us reading this piece can think of a teacher who fundamentally changed our lives for the better.

A Good Doctor, A Good Lawyer, and A Good Priest.  Oh, and…

The old maxim may be right—you need a good doctor, a good lawyer, and a good priest. But let’s add “a good teacher” to the list.

On that plane home, it struck me that the doctor, lawyer and I were far from equal in terms of our salaries, our institutional power, and the autonomy our profession accords us. But we were equals in a critical sense—as professionals who have worked long and hard through formal education, collaboration with colleagues, and wisdom from mentors to excel at work that builds the very bones of our society.

We walked off the plane with a greater understanding and respect for the profession each of us has chosen. We didn’t even poison each other’s drinks.


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  • Barnett Berry

    Comparing lawyers, doctors, and teachers

    Brilliant post, Justin! Your thinking gives us much to think about.  Unfortunately isn this country policymakers and pundits are still perseverating on Teach for America as the model for the future of teacher education.  There is so little depth in their thinking — compared to yours! Your essay reminded me of the work, done several years ago by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) and studies of professional education in law, engineering, nursing, and the clergy as well as medicine. Then led by Lee Shulman, the intellectual father of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the CFAT investigation into the preparation of physicians led to the following recommendations.


    1.     With “early clinical immersion” residents should have “more intense exposure to the sciences and best evidence underlying their practice;”

    2.     The fundamental pedagogy of medical education must focus on ensuring that future doctors “develop the motivation and skill to teach themselves, stimulated by their clinical experiences, information about the effectiveness of their care, and interactions with others in the clinical environment;”

    3.     Doctors should “not be obliged to spend time unproductively repeating clinical activities once they have mastered the competencies appropriate to their level;”

    4.     Future doctors, while learning the practical aspects of health care, must also engage in “inquiry, discovery and systems innovation;”

    5.     Medicine must continue its focus on intensive clinical preparation, but should provide future doctors with individualized learning and experiences in research, policy, education, etc., reflecting the broad role played by physicians;

    1. The “backbone” of medical education must be on “professional identity formation” and the development of “professional values, actions, and aspirations.”

    Many of these recommendations are rooted in Flexner’s model of medical education of almost 100 years ago, but reflective of new technologies and breakthroughs in science of healing. Education policymakers and pundits continue to ignore what scientists are surfacing about human cognition and how advanced digital tools can spread their expertise. Some of our nation’s best education schools are engaged in pedagogies, fueled by new technologies. But unfortunately these efforts are either unrecognized or intentionally ignored. It is time to hold education policymakers accountable for enacting teaching and learning policies that work. It is time to hold policymakers accountable for using evidence of how other successful professions operate in our nation’s efforts to advancing the one that makes all others possible. 

  • JustinMinkel

    Brilliant, Barnett.

    Barnett, deepest thanks for this wonderfully thoughtful reply.  I love the list of recommendations, this one in particular:

    “Future doctors, while learning the practical aspects of health care, must also engage in “inquiry, discovery and systems innovation””

    Isn’t this what Finland has figured out?  That professional development should earn that description “professional” by treating teaching as a knowledge profession, in which action research is central?  That instead of having two camps of “reformers” and “teachers” we should have “teacher/reformers” who help to shape the systems in which our students learn and we teach?

    Salary matters, but research on different generations shows that much of what generations X and Y care about is described in that recommendation–the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on meaningful work, and somewhat democratic systems in which professional responsibility is paired with professional autonomy.

    Making this recommendation a reality in teaching has a trifecta payoff: more effective teachers, more functional policies and systems, and a positive impact on recruitment and retention.

  • Panjhaomza

    All professions are always

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