Read the following definition and consider whether you think that teachers are included in the category described.
Professionally exempt work – “Work which is predominantly intellectual, requires specialized education, and involves the exercise of discretion and judgment. Professionally exempt workers must have education beyond high school, and usually beyond college, in fields that are distinguished from (more “academic” than) the mechanical arts or skilled trades. Advanced degrees are the most common measure of this, but are not absolutely necessary if an employee has attained a similar level of advanced education through other means (and perform essentially the same kind of work as similar employees who do have advanced degrees).” (From http://www.flsa.com/coverage.html; as written in this Education Week article)
If you said yes, you would be right. It’s fairly easy to see how the role of a teacher fits within these parameters. Teachers exercise discretion and judgment constantly, they are expected to hold advanced degrees, and the work is mostly intellectual in nature.
However, there is certainly a case for arguing that, in the current state of the profession, teachers do not satisfy all three of these requirements. As standardized testing has taken root, and curriculum has become more and more dictated by external forces, the amount of thinking a teacher is expected to do has diminished. Even at my school, where we test once a year solely for the purposes of helping teachers assess where students are, teachers infrequently utilize their own creativity in a robust way. What they teach and how they teach it is often dictated to them; if not by the school, by their perceived limitations.
Instead of designing their own activities, I frequently watch teachers turn to Google to find a way to approach a lesson that hasn’t been written for them. Yes, it is good to avoid recreating the wheel and it is important to know how to use your resources, but rarely do the teachers seem to think, “hmm, let me come up with a way to teach this from the power of my brain.” Further conceded, teachers do an enormous amount of exactly that in an impromptu fashion, as they explain each concept repeatedly in new ways in an effort to get students to understand. But where did we lose the notion that teachers are truly professionals who have the preparation and skills to be able to figure out how to teach a concept from the beginning for themselves?
What concerns me most is that the political policies draining professionalization from teaching don’t match up with the political rhetoric professing that teachers are among the most professionalized in society. The excerpt above is taken from an Education Week article explaining why teachers will be exempt from President Obama’s update to the overtime law, just like doctors, engineers, and accountants, among others. For this policy, teachers are deemed capable professionals (likely because no one can imagine a feasible plan to pay teachers the overtime that would be required by the update to the rule).
I want this to be true; I believe that teachers have and should have the knowledge and freedom to perform their work to their best ability, just as professionally exempt employees in other fields do. But I just don’t think the current system actually supports that. Aside from the proof given by the enormous amount of regulation and standardization that teachers endure, teachers are paid significantly less than the other professional exempt employees. If society truly deemed teachers as on par with others in this classification, I have to believe their work lives and salaries would be comparable. Without reconciling the rhetoric and the policies, I believe we will continue to struggle to find great teachers, keep them, and give future generations the best possible education.