By Rod Landis
December 30, 2005
In a recent KETCHIKAN DAILY NEWS story on the School Board's consideration of the Tongass School of Arts and Sciences contract, Board President Russell Thomas makes repeated reference to the "staff" who sit on the Academic Policy Committee, or APC. In actuality, only one staff member sits on this board, and two teachers do. While "staff" can, in the broad sense, refer to anyone employed by an agency, institution, or business, one common misconception among even those who work in the educational field is that teachers are the same as staff. However, the time-honored distinction between teachers and everyone else who works for an educational institution is that teachers are faculty.
This may seem a nit-picky distinction until you consider the corrosive effects of current political attacks on educators in this country. In Anna Quindlen s excellent NEWSWEEK column (Nov. 28 issue), she reports the demoralizing average salary that new teachers can expect to earn - just under thirty thousand a year - and analyzes the issue in light of other indignities teachers put up with, including the increasingly popular political notion of tying teacher pay raises to pass rates and standardized test scores. This new merit pay plan, if implemented widely, could do for the teaching profession what an Avian Flu epidemic would do for the nursing profession - kill any desire to go anywhere near that particular career path. Teachers, even in Alaska, where they make more than do their counterparts elsewhere, certainly don't get into this business for the money. While most of us know it is true that the best teachers do teach because they love to see students engaged by new material, want to help students succeed, are excited about finding new ways to make learning happen, and so forth, it is also true (or used to be) that part of the appeal of teaching is that a certain respect is associated with being a teacher.
While physicians carry the title of "Dr." and those in the legal profession call each other "Your Honor" and "Counselor", students, beginning at the earliest ages, call their teachers Mr. _____ and Ms. _____. It used to be that kids would use the courtesy title for all adults they weren't related to, but that cultural convention has long since disappeared, and now teachers are about the only ones accorded the "Mr." and "Ms." distinction anymore. Teachers ought to insist on this same respect from those they work with, and from the public in general, by referring to themselves as "faculty, not "staff". A school building's staff includes not only the principal and office personnel, but food service workers, custodians, and aides, all of whom deserve respect but none of whom are teachers in the sense that they maintain a classroom, implement a curriculum, and are responsible for evaluating, instructing, and disciplining students.
The derivation of "faculty" is from the Latin, and descends from the same word we use to describe an aptitude for something, a power or capability of mind. Jesus was a teacher. Socrates was a teacher. Many of the authors we acknowledge as great today were, in addition to being writers, teachers. And although scientific disciplines came much later, and don t have the ancient associations as do law, medicine, politics, and other well-respected professions, many scientists also have counted themselves teachers. Teaching is, as the saying goes, the profession upon which all the others depend. And yet: staff. How does Thomas know how to refer to teachers, distinguishing them from all others in the local educational system, when school district managers do not do so? In the same DAILY NEWS story, Superintendent Martin is quoted as saying the principal was evaluating the staff (while staff are evaluated, they do not receive the rigorous assessment faculty do, and for good reason). Those who work in Central Office routinely refer to teachers in a demeaning way as "my staff" or "the staff" of this school or that. I have also read stories and letters from those in unions representing teachers refer to teaching faculty as "staff", which is simply buying into the cultural norm that denigrates those who teach.
It is axiomatic that meaning resides in words. The words we use to define people say something about the way we feel about them, and defining words such as "faculty" and "staff" set up distinctions. Object-relations psychology tells us, among other things, that identity is assigned through the use of symbols, and words are in their purest essence symbols: they stand for something else, for their object. We teachers all too often have to remind the culture at large that we deserve respect, but let's start by at least acknowledging that language contains powerful symbolic connotations. In French, the generic word for teacher is le (or la) professeur. This assumes not only that teaching is a profession, but that as such it initiates the act of "professing" that comes with the title: a history teacher professes to know and be able to teach history. A math teacher is someone who professes mathematics. We profess; we teach. We are faculty.
About: Rod Landis is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Alaska Southeast, Ketchikan Campus.
Received 12/30/05 - Published 12/30/05
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