Being a profession?

It seems that almost every day this week in some forum or another I've heard reference to the need to 'recapture the profession' of teaching. Is this the case? Is teaching no longer a profession? Have we lost the right to call ourselves professionals?

This debate has been around for a long time and never seems to be fully resolved, and may never be as long as we have a situation where teachers and teaching is subject to so much direct political influence and interference. There is hardly a day goes by when we don't see teachers and/or teaching represented in a negative light by the media who seldom waste an opportunity to position teachers as "a problem to be fixed".

My thinking on this started last Friday when a speaker at a conference I was at made such a claim whne speaking to a group of APs and DPs from local schools.  It continued this week as I listened to another speaker presenting at a different conference to a room full of principals, and yet again as I read several articles online where this issue is being raised internationally. 

In Australia this week Federal Minister of Education, Peter Garrett and his colleagues signed off The Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders and the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework, both documents outlining a bold new approach to thinking about professional development for teachers (as professionals). But as Nichole Mockler from the University of Newcastle points out in her article titled Building a profession: teacher performance reviews not just about ‘bad teachers', the major news outlets’ coverage has skipped over the main story to focus almost exclusively on teacher appraisal as a tool for punishing “bad” teachers. There's some really useful reading in her article which goes on to explore the value of reflective practice and notions of teaching as inquiry as underpinning effective professional development, with links to the work of Stenhouse and others which appeals to my era of scanning the literature!

From the USA I read another article that made me think of the status of teachers. A New York Times article titled Many New York City Teachers Denied Tenure in Policy Shift focuses on changes in the way teachers are assessed. With stricter criteria being applied, fewer are gaining tenure, reflecting a reversal in the way tenure is granted not only in New York City but around the country. While tenure was once considered nearly automatic, it has now become something teachers have to earn. The rationale for this shift is summed up in the following quote from the article:

"It is an important movement because what we know is that when schools improve, a lot of the improvement relates back to having really strong teachers organized around a common vision,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city Education Department’s chief academic officer. “I think New York City has some of the best teachers in the country. It is a good place. People want to be here. So we are very fortunate. But we also want to keep pushing them, just like we want to keep pushing our kids.”

In a previous blog post of mine titled the elephant in the room  I shared thoughts about the impact on the strategic development of a school where some staff chose not to take an agreed course of action. I noted how such behaviour calls into question the professionalism of those staff, and queries the effectiveness of staff appraisal processes. At the time of writing that post, the notion of what it means to be a professional was being discussed in that school context.

There are many definitions of what it means to be a professional, and what the marks of a profession are. The simplest can be summarised as:

  1. competence in a specialized body of knowledge and skill;
  2. an acknowledgment of specific duties and responsibilities toward the individuals it serves and toward society;
  3. the right to train, admit, discipline and dismiss its members for failure to sustain competence or observe the duties and responsibilities.

Searching a little further I came across references that expand on these ideas a little further, and have the following list  – under which I've added some comments as I reflect on how each characteristic is manfiest currently…

  • Preparation for and induction into the profession is provided through a protracted preparation program, usually in a professional school on a college or university campus.

We seem to be confused in NZ on this. While on the one hand we're seeing an emphasis moving towards a graduate profession, we're also seeing lobbying for unqualified people to be allowed to work with students. Clearly some confusing signals here. 

  • There is a high level of public trust and confidence in the profession and in individual practitioners, based upon the profession's demonstrated capacity to provide service markedly beyond that which would otherwise be available.

Often commented on as a hallmark of the Finnish education system, however in NZ teachers are subjected to a campaign of public disquiet at the moment – they are portrayed as the 'bad guys' and those who are resisting change etc. 

  • Individual practitioners are characterized by a strong service motivation and lifetime commitment to competence.

True for most within the profession who are older than 40 – but we've seen this eroded also in recent years – just check the stats on retention of teacher's college graduates!

  • Authority to practice in any individual case derives from the employing organization; accountability for the competence of professional practice within the particular case is to the profession itself.

The NZ teacher's council is the agency charged with doing this in NZ, however events of recent times suggests that it is not as effective as it could be, largely because of the ineffectiveness of those within the profession whom it is charged with protecting. 

  • There is relative freedom from direct on-the-job supervision and from direct public evaluation of the individual practitioner. The professional accepts responsibility in the name of his or her profession and is accountable through his or her profession to the society.

It's my perception that there is a fair amount of resistance to this sort of practice. Teaching is acknowledged as being a rather 'private' endeavour, and those within it aren't naturally persuaded to letting others critique and comment on their work. 

If course these may be a pretty superficial look at some of the issues – but hopefully they may be picked up in some quarters to generate professional debate and inquiry into what we can do to re-claim our status as professionals. It's easy to make the charge that our professional status has been underminded by external factors such as the media (which arguably is a contributing factor), but the solution lies in our own hands. In order to reclaim our profession, we need to reclaim our professional voice. And in doing so, we need to ensure that our actions back up what we're saying in all respects, for as we all know – people listen more to what we do!

Now, more than ever before, we need to find our professional voice, and to express out ideas in coherent, informed and convincing ways. Consider the following issues that we are confronted with at the moment:


  • ranking of schools
  • instruction reflecting the old paradigm (as supported by assessment approaches)
  • exams
  • class size
  • standardisation
  • failure 
  • performance pay
  • charter schools

Where are the informed debates that are exploring these issues beyond the emotional responses and hear-say evidence? Where is the big-picture analysis that is placing these concepts within a particular political milieu, and where is the analysis of this from a socio-cultural perspective? Sadly, much of the time is taken up debating these things from the perspective of industrial relations, which, while important to those being 'buffeted' by such policy windmills, isn't the voice of a profession. 

The conversations needs to start in our staffrooms, in our professional associations, in our educator groups and our PLNs, then spill over into the public arena. Now there's a dream worth pursuing…!

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