Are We Doctors or Surgeons?

medium_3681831618I’ve found myself lately in the middle of an interesting debate between two groups of educators in my network.  Let me lay out the two sides and we can hash it out in the comments.

On one side, are educators who are frustrated with the exponential rise of responsibility that non-educators seem to be placing on teachers.  It certainly seems that we are now the scapegoats for everything that is wrong with education, and specifically student failure.  It is as if all of society is happy to ignore the evidence that somewhere between 60% and 70% of a student’s academic success or failure is due to factors beyond our control, including family income, above all else.

Classroom teachers, fed up with being held responsible for so much that seems beyond our control, ask why other professionals aren’t held to the same standard.  In David Reber’s piece for the Examiner, her writes:

“If a poverty-stricken, drug-addled meth-cooker burns down his house, suffers third degree burns, and then goes to jail; we don’t blame the police, fire department, doctors, and defense attorneys for his predicament. But if that kid doesn’t graduate high school, it’s clearly the teacher’s fault.”

That logic makes sense, right? If you choose to live an unhealthy or dangerous life, no one blames the doctor when you die.  Teachers are similarly altruistic and should likewise be respected for their expertise regardless of the outcomes.  But that doesn’t exactly ring true, does it?

One of the differences between doctors and teachers is that we work exclusively with children.  This is not a minor point.  Our “patients” lack the experience and maturity to make serious decisions independently and correctly most of the time.  In fact, part of our job is to help them develop that skill.

On the opposite side of the argument are many people, educators included, who argue that teachers should be accountable for the results of their work, like so many other professions.  A colleague and super-intelligent educator, Deb Teitelbaum, recently wrote:

“If I’m a surgeon, and a patient under my care dies, I have to submit to a[n inquest] by my peers and explain what I did and did not do to prevent this death. I can report that the patient smoked heavily for many years, was severely overweight, and was sucking on a side of bacon as we wheeled him into the O.R., but I don’t have the luxury of blaming my patient for his own death.  Neither should teachers be able to blame their students for the students’ failure to thrive.”

That’s a powerful message.  Surgeons, who actively use their skills to save lives and counter the effects of a patient’s own choices and circumstances, must take responsibility for the failure.  Surgeons must stand up and say, “I did this.  Now, how can I avoid these mistakes in the future.” The goal is not to shame those who make errors, but rather to improve care for all.

But, which analogy is most apt for classroom teachers?  Are we doctors who advise our patients, but can’t ultimately be blamed if they make unwise choices?  Or, are we surgeons that intervene to correct the problems caused by chance and choice, and accountable for the outcome?  Neither metaphor is a perfect one, but the choice that we make in how we think about our profession has a significant impact on the way in which we teach.

Which do you choose?


photo credit: Aleera* via photopin cc

2 thoughts on “Are We Doctors or Surgeons?

  1. I think teachers are both, and I’d argue that education is far more complex than medicine when it comes to cause-and-effect, long-term benefits and consequences, and accountability. Excepting particular conditions, generally speaking, specific actions will have predictable, repeatable effects when it comes to health and medicine. There is little variation from person to person on that score when compared with education (not saying there is no variation at all), because the body is more rigid and limited in its responses to stimuli than the mind, which expands into the realm of the abstract.

    With education, a particular approach can produce widely varying results from student to student based on numerous factors: age, maturity, home life, income, general intelligence, personal interest in applicable subjects, personality, talents, etc. Because of this, I don’t think there is one, clean, concise answer to this question. There are times when a teacher has to be the doctor, and times when a teacher has to be the surgeon. It depends on the students in question.

    That being said, trends should be a factor in determining a teacher’s accountability. If a teacher has a generally positive track record regarding student participation and performance, then the odds are better that those among his students who are failing are primarily responsible for that failure. But if a teacher has a generally negative track record in these areas, as in having a significantly high number of students who struggle and/or fail, year after year, then the odds are better that at least some of the responsibility for that sits on his/her shoulders.

    I feel like I can’t adequately convey everything I want to impart on this subject via this medium, so if you ever want to discuss it more in-depth, just message me.


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