Like millions of people exploring career opportunities, I have spent an inordinate amount of time on LinkedIn in recent years. I have a modest yet carefully curated network in place. I have fine-tuned my profile diligently to stand out from the pack (although according to the bots, I am only in the top 35 percent of my network). I have sifted through job prospects, clicked on applications, liked comments, and even dabbled with my own posts. Yet, after a year of this LinkedIn madness I have come to a dire conclusion that may lay at the heart of the current teacher shortage crisis: Being a K-12 educator, especially a teacher, gets little to no respect in the new LinkedIn culture.
“Just” A Teacher
In a recent conversation with a close friend, himself a former teacher pivoting to a career in higher education, we both lamented this teacher status quandary. We agreed that in order to be taken seriously, especially from private industry, we had to embellish our K-12 years. Not embellish as in lie, but as in make fancy. Mentions of “learners” or “lesson plans,” for example, were not in line with the job market. Inserting words like “managed,” “developed,” “coordinated” or even “mentored” were much better.
As for job titles, identifying as just “a teacher” was a non-starter—even for positions in school-related nonprofit work, educational leadership, or instruction at the higher education levels. Like it or not, we had to adapt to a new LinkedIn culture obsessed with trendy titles, reform-focused hyperbole, and “transformative” practice—not in schools but preferably in the private sector. “Strategic,” “Consulting,” “Directing,” “Diversity,” and “Engaging” are in; “Counseling,“ “Classroom,” “Students,” and just plain “Teaching” are out.
The irony of this predicament is that virtually every job description we compared called precisely for the skills gained from combined decades working in the classroom. These are the same skills millions of teachers exhibit every single day across the country ― skills that would no doubt transfer to other sectors. “The ability to relate to multiple stakeholders” or “develop dynamic plans for reaching diverse audiences” could hardly be more implicit in a teacher’s job description.
And yet, we both shared uneasiness in placing any word associated with K-12 teaching in our profile. It turns out we were not alone. A passing survey of close teacher friends revealed the same concerns: almost all educators with whom we spoke felt as if their skills in the classroom carried little or no weight in the private sector, even in cases where the job called for their specific areas of expertise.
Even worse, many experienced teachers felt it would be a hindrance to mention their K-12 chops for a role with education-related organizations, many in the burgeoning nonprofit support sector (over 185,000 organizations were doing business in the PK-12 sector in 2014). Although not empirically confirmed, the general sentiment was that these organizations overwhelmingly preferred MBAs over M.Eds. This might explain why so many teachers in my network have incomplete or wholly abandoned LinkedIn profiles.
A Microcosm Of The Teacher Crisis
Of course, one could argue that all of this has more to do with our own personal insecurities than anything else. Maybe we’re just bitter because we didn’t get an interview for a coveted vacancy. Maybe we’re just too old, or perhaps we (educators) just need to adapt to a free market economy—where our non-K-12 competitors are as able as any teacher, even if they did not spend time working in schools. All of these are true to some degree.
I for one am a big believer in hiring talent for talent’s sake, not just because he or she is “an educator.” Nonetheless, I can’t help agonize over one pressing question: What does the LinkedIn culture say about the status of teachers? More important, if we continue down this path, what will the future of teaching look like? What 15-year-old—heck, what 35-year-old—will want to be just a teacher?
To all of my teacher friends, I caution against blaming the lack of status in the profession on the privatization of education, charter versus public schools, or even socialism versus capitalism. It was, after all, Lee Iacocca who stated that “in a rational society the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.”
If anything, the LinkedIn phenomenon has simply highlighted that we as a culture (all of us!) elevate the something else irrationally, artificially. Through discourse and clever semantics we have managed to introduce an ever more creative array of labels that, while impressive, overshadow the humble yet deeply impactful work of service-first professionals with lesser titles. Nowhere is this more evident than with teachers.
We mustn’t be fooled into thinking this is merely a semantic concern. Words absolutely matter. The teachers of the next generation are tuned in to the status and title narrative as they chart their future. To a youth where perception matters above all, the words we choose to convey status are critical. Perhaps this explains why teacher recruitment, especially among youth of color, is in a state of freefall. Since 2000, enrollment in college teacher prep programs has declined by 10 percent nationally, with some states experiencing even sharper drops. California, one of the largest producers of education majors, lost over 20,000 candidates in 2014. New York and Texas also experienced significant declines.
Add more deeply rooted socio-economic problems, such as lack of access to affordable higher education and a persistent achievement gap among minorities, and the teacher corps is facing an even greater identity crisis, literally. According to recent data, while the student population continues to diversify, over 80 percent of public school teachers are white. This disparity is even more alarming in areas with higher concentrations of minorities. And if one thinks that doesn’t—or shouldn’t—matter, think again. Studies have shown that black students score better on assessments with black teachers, and other reports have demonstrated that minority students taught by non-minority teachers are routinely marked lower than non-white students. In short, we need to attract great—diverse—teachers more than ever!
To be clear, Networks like LinkedIn did not create the crisis; they merely expose and accentuate the sad truth that teaching is not as respected as other professions. Likewise, the evolution of titan-esque job titles is not unique to education but rather a product of cross-sector code switching that has been occurring for decades. Business has a long history of incorporating jargon from the sports world. Similarly, it is now commonplace to see professionals across the spectrum anointed with the salutation of “chief” or “senior” in their early twenties.
The difference, some argue, is that the K-12 sector was and is ripe for abuse. Unlike other industries, education is uniquely vulnerable to the isomorphic pressures from outside forces that seek to reshape the field in their image. As my own research uncovered, K-12 schools have operated in relative isolation for decades, most definitely in regards to talent acquisition.
It is no surprise, then, that with the infusion of new capital into K-12, the sector finds itself ill equipped to emphasize, preserve, or even evolve its own professional culture. Rather than maintain perfectly acceptable titles like “principal” or “superintendent,” for instance, schools and districts are under pressure to adapt to private sector norms. A once proud profession with its own values has slowly capitulated to a dominant culture that is rooted, as one scholar noted, in business schools.
There is also the view that infusing new titles like CEO over Superintendent or Student Engagement Coordinator over School Counselor may attract young minds to the field. While there may be some truth to this (albeit to my knowledge unverified), fashionable educator titles do little to advance the profession as a science and art. Instead of helping move the field forward—to attract new teachers, for example—it may actually be eradicating the elements that give the profession its identity.
By most metrics it is fair to say that the education space is experiencing an awakening of professional opportunities. Indeed, this was the reason I found myself on LinkedIn to begin with. Like many of my peers, I am inspired by a new generation of business ideas that are rethinking how we design schools, how we partner, how we connect to the community, and how we learn. But the question remains, who will lead in this revolution? This is a conversation we must have. It is about more than words and titles. It is about the future. A future where youth are inspired to become educators, and where being a teacher is more than enough— even on LinkedIn.