Teaching’s Position within Social Structures
Realizing the stratification and specialization that society needs to function as a body according to structuralist theory, schools act as a mechanism for transforming individual stem cells [uneducated elementary students] into cells serving specialized functions [i.e., leader, professor, laborer]—heart cells, brain cells, and muscle tissue. In Social Class and School Knowledge, Anyon (1981) describes four socioeconomic classes of students—working class, middle class, affluent professional class (or “educated” class), and the executive elite class—and the differing types of education that students received in order to transform them from stem cell into specialized cell. The types of education students received differed dramatically—especially for a nation that claims to offer equal opportunity to all.
It should be no surprise, given that students receive dramatically different educations, that there is a special “type” of person who becomes a teacher. In our society, occupations are picked by ascriptive qualities (social characteristics visible at birth) and personal choice from among the paths one is allowed to take (Lortie, 1975, p. 25). Teaching tends to be a conservative profession in that it values tradition and continuity. “One might, of course, enter teaching to change it; but as we shall see later, it is difficult to find members of the occupation who so describe their entry” (Lortie, 1975, p. 29).
Combining Lortie’s observation that few radicals enter the profession of teaching to change it and Anyon’s observation that people from certain backgrounds—through the process of specialization via education—end up with certain attributes, I am led to believe that the majority of teachers come from the middle class. Arguably, students are drawn to the profession of teaching in proportion to the degree with which they are able to identify with the background of their teachers.
While some teachers may derive from a working class background, teaching has a tendency to appeal to those who had a good experience in school; this fact alone may discourage many from the working class to enter the profession—given the baggage they carry from inadequate or poor educational experiences and bad memories from school days. Even out of those who have fonder memories of school, many are prevented from entering the occupation due to lack of skills, college education, or credentials that few from a working class background are able to attain. By allowing a token number of working class individuals to become teachers, the Horatio Alger myth of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” is allowed to continue, while encouraging other members of the working class to “toe the line,” in hopes that their good behavior might have its reward. It is no mistake that one of the professions promising the working class upward mobility is a conservative one—for society needs the working class to be obedient and rule-abiding—using the reward of an individual with a conservative job as symbolic encouragement for the obedience of others. Those who loved school and feel that entering the profession is a “reward” or a step up the social ladder are unlikely to want to change the system that provided them with their position, leading to its continuity.
In the working class schools Anyon observed, teachers were predominantly young, single, male, and from the state teachers college. It is important to note that “a significant proportion of men who teach come from homes marked by economic insecurity and low social status” (Lortie, 1975, p. 30). In other words, students attending working class schools are trained to be working class people by individuals originating from the working class—although most of the working class teachers originally came from a better neighborhood than those which they eventually taught in.
In the middle class schools Anyon observed, approximately 1/3 of the teachers grew up in the neighborhood, most graduated from a local state teachers college, and the majority were females married to men with middle-class careers. Since these teachers came from such similar backgrounds as their students, perhaps it made it easier for students to identify with their teachers, imagining themselves in the role teachers—thus perpetuating the middle class dominance of this profession.
In the affluent professional school Anyon observed, the majority of teachers were female and married to professionals, had originally derived from middle-class or upper-middle class backgrounds, and grew up throughout the state. These students were apparently less likely to see themselves as teachers, due to there being less of an alignment between their backgrounds and those of their teachers—especially when compared to the match between middle class students’ and teachers’ backgrounds. It also seems unlikely that individuals receiving an education that emphasizes questioning, creativity, and independent thinking would be attracted to a profession that values tradition, continuity, and routine work. Teaching is not only unlikely to attract those who want to taste new experiences and tackle novel challenges, but is likely to drive out any individual who enters the profession standing against the strong community pressures that perpetuate “norms” and “standards.”
In the executive elite school that Anyon observed, most teachers were females married to professionals, residing in the professional section of town. Many came from middle- and upper-middle class backgrounds, but considered themselves of a lower social status then their students. It should be no surprise, given that such teachers are of a lower social status, that they bring a very different political perspective to class discussions, making it unlikely for students to closely identify with them—instead viewing them as “other.” Teaching is therefore unlikely to appeal to those of an executive elite background, who have been trained to plan, order, and organize society. An individual of executive elite origins attracted to the field of education might instead opt to become an administrator rather than a teacher.