Reclaiming our profession

Every day in schools throughout the country, teachers are entrusted with the task of ensuring children’s intellectual growth and preparing them to meet the challenge of the future. As a result, one might expect that such important work would enjoy high status and respect in society, such as is afforded doctors, lawyers, accountants etc. This is the case in some countries such as Finland, but, I fear, is not the case in New Zealand.

A key issue here is whether teaching can be considered a profession – a debate I was first introduced to in my teacher training some 30 years ago. The outcome then, as now, was indefinite. A review of what is said about the hallmarks of a profession can be helpful, some variances in terms of who you consult, but the key elements remain the same, including, among others:

  • a common body of knowledge and a repertoire of behaviors and skills required to operate in the profession
  • agreed-upon performance standards for admission to the profession
  • a protracted preparation program required before practicing as a professional
  • an ongoing commitment to professional learning and advancement of knowledge
  • induction into the profession is the responsibility of other professionals
  • a high level of public trust and confidence exists in the profession and in individual practitioners
  • practitioners are characterized by a strong service motivation
  • practitioners place the public interest foremost
  • a distinctive ethical code that binds practitioners in their relationships with clients, colleagues, and the public

(other lists can be found here, or here)

The question is, do these hallmarks apply to those of us engaged in education? Is there sufficient evidence to suggest that, by these criteria, we are a profession? Or are teachers simply employees of the state, civil servants whose duty it is to carry out their civic duty in the manner in which they are directed?

Clearly, this issue has been around for some time, as indicated by this extract from the first edition of the Times Educational Supplement (TES) published on Tuesday 6 September, 1910 (100 years ago this week!). The extract below is taken from page 11 of that document:

At issue here it would appear is the freedom of teachers to express their political views in public, and the view that if teaching were simply a branch of the civil service such actions would not be tolerated. One hundred years later it would appear that the current political regime does indeed consider teaching and teachers to be a part of the public service, this quote from the Minister of Education taken from the NZ Herald article on Friday July 10, 2010:

Clearly, there is an issue here when professionals (be they teachers, lawyers, doctors) are working under the mandate of a government department (Ministry), and where their income is derived from the public purse.

I think it’s useful to be reminded of this tension, particularly at a time when education is under such pressures. In my role I have the privilege to interact with a great many schools and educators, and in these interactions I see evidence of both perspectives. Of the professionals:

  • a total commitment to the children in their care, and to their community
  • a commitment to professional learning – even in their “own time”
  • held in high regard by parents and community
  • high quality classroom programmes that include diagnostic, formative and summative assessment practices
  • a commitment to reflective practice and continual improvement

and in other cases…

  • the increasing pre-occupation with ‘rights’, pay scales and employment conditions
  • an emphasis on ‘work to rule’ (as one teacher explained to me recently,  “before I took this job I told the principal, ‘I don’t do staff meetings‘.”)
  • the lack of interest in senior roles or promotion because of the increased ‘aggro’ that is perceived to come with the positions
  • etc.

Now I’m not offering any magic bullet, simply reflecting on what I see happening in our sector and advocating a collective return to the principles of professionalism, and  not to allow ourselves to succumb to being simply ’employees of the state’.

One thought on “Reclaiming our profession

  1. Hi Derek,
    …. and the Teachers Council mandates what has been decreed as a description of what it means to be a ‘professional’ teacher. Similar to the doctors obligation to ‘first do no harm’. Even the one teacher I have had to move out of the profession as a principal was doing her best and working hard … just in what were the wrong ways to provide a quality programme. I have not met any teacher who started each day deliberately trying to mess up some kids life.
    You are right though when you imply we have to make sure we act like professionals if we expect to be treated like them. The moral high ground is gone if we are petty, lazy, immoral, etc. One of the tensions will always be to match policy from the centre with our professional knowledge, experience and research. At what point is informed resistance OK to an educational policy that professionals believe will do harm? That’s a debate being had in staffrooms and around the country at the moment around national standards, depending on where you sit on this one. But we have had the same debates about issues for as long as I have been an educator; and particularly based around political statements and beliefs that become educational policy.

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