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.

 

Related categories: