On being a profession…

Teachers and school leaders are being challenged to transform educational outcomes, often under difficult conditions. They are being asked to equip students with the competencies they need to become active citizens and workers in the 21st century. They need to personalize learning experiences to ensure that every student has a chance to succeed and to deal with increasing cultural diversity in their classrooms and differences in learning styles. They also need to keep up with innovations in curricula, pedagogy and the development of digital resources. The challenge is to equip all teachers, and not just some, for effective learning in the 21st century.

This will require rethinking of many aspects, including: how to optimize the pool of individuals from which teacher candidates are drawn; recruiting systems and the ways in which staff are selected; the kind of initial education recruits obtain before they start teaching, how they are monitored and inducted into their service, and the continuing education and support they get; how their compensation is structured; and how the performance of struggling teachers is improved and the best performing teachers are given opportunities to acquire more status and responsibility. 

The extract above comes from the foreword to the OECD publication Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World which summarizes the evidence that underpinned the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession held in New York in March 2011.

The status of teachers within a community/country has been identified in the OECD work as a common characterisic of those countries where student achievement is highest. Since the publication of this report there has been much written and acted upon in OECD countries around the world, including New Zealand, to help raise the status of the teaching profession in order to attract and retain the very best teachers we can. The announcements made earlier this year by the New Zealand government of plans to recognise the contribution of our best teachers is premised on this objective. 

Whether we agree with the strategy or not, the fact does remain that we are suffering in New Zealand from teaching being regarded as a lower status job, indeed, seldom referred to as a profession in many circles.

When I was training to be a teacher (last century!) I recall we had a long debate in one of our education classes on whether teaching is in fact a profession. This led to rigorous examination of the 'hallmarks of a profession' (For an expanded list see here), and an analysis of whether teaching met these or not. Consider the following list of the commonly cited traits of a profession (distinguishing a profession from other occupations)…

  1. skill based on abstract knowledge, 
  2. provision for training and education, usually associated with a university,
  3. certification based on competency testing, 
  4. formal organization, 
  5. adherence to a code of conduct,
  6. altruistic service.

Within these (4 & 5 above in particular), professions are usually identified by the autonomy they exercise in terms of maintaining the integrity of the knowledge and actions of their members, including the induction of new members into the profession. In terms of what sets them apart, many would argue that it is the monopoly over a body of theoretical knowledge which is the most fundamental characteristic of professionalism because it creates the need for the other elements. 

Also to consider is the fact that the conditions under which teachers carry out their professional tasks have changed significantly in the past couple of decades, so that the predominant pattern is no longer that of the free practitioner in the provision of services, but that of the salaried specialist in a large organization, where the determination over things like the national educational goals, national curriculum, national standards etc. reflect the tension between a government taking action to address issues of national significance (in their view), and the profession acting with autonomy and professional knowledge to address the same things. 

This tension is highlighted for me as I read the announcement from the UK earlier last week, about the establishment of new teachers' body that aims to advise the government there on curriculum development. The sub-heading for the articles states that "the proposed College of Teachers will seek greater autonomy for teaching profession and reclaim ground from government".

Some quotes from teachers reported in response to this initiative suggest this is a positive move..

"Simply bumbling through for a four year political cycle is not appropriate and does little but cheapen the profession and the education that can be provided."

 "It makes much more sense for excellent teachers to be at the forefront of driving standards forward than policy makers who are usually looking in from the outside with no real experience of teaching."

However, several of the comments made in response to the article aren't as wildy enthusiastic, reflecting the divide that exists as we struggle to justify the status of the teaching profession in society. Here are a few selected ones to illustrate:

"Typical state teachers. They want the funding, juicy pensions, bags of holidays and early retirement but accountability? No. They hate politicians, policy makers and the govt. Teachers call it interference, I call it accountability. Leave teachers alone and you end up with sliding results.. "

"Next thing you know teachers will be getting input into what goes on in schools – acceptable student behaviour, setting curriculum, student testing, etc. How absurd!"

"oh dear oh dear oh dear – all we need is teachers getting more autonomy …again….the lunatics take over the asylum. here we go ..>> back to the 70s – teachers decide content, methodology, assessment….i was there – i KNOW what happened"

So the issue is indeed complex. There is no doubting that the status of the profession requires improvement. While I support the introduction of strategies such as has been announced here in NZ, it will take significantly more than this to achieve the raising of the status of the profession in order to regain the trust of the community, and to attract and retain high quality teachers within it as identified as being so important in the OECD research. This must start with those of us in the 'profession' itself, taking greate professional responsibility for the things that matter, and demosntrating professional responses to the various political and societal pressures that impinge on our practice. We must also demonstrate a professional approach to workling together to re-think and re-imagine what the nature of our profession and our professional context(s) might be like in the future. 

I'd like to suggest three reasons why the status of teachers as a profession is losing ground at the moment (aside from the obvious political ones):

  1. Education levels rising among the general public (everyone is an expert nowadays, or has access to expertise to challenge that of the teaching professionals).
  2. ICTs are  becoming increasingly sophisticated, providing access to specialist information/knowledge and programmes of learning (thus taking away the teachers' monopoly on knowledge).
  3. New occupations of para-professionals cutting into the teaching professionals' knowledge monopoly.

Consequently, the whole question of whether teaching is a profession, or can become one, is a bit of a red herring. The real issue is the degree to which teachers can resist deskilling and maintain some measure of autonomy within the schooling system. For that to happen I believe we need a complete re-think about what our schooling system might be like as we sail merrily into the 21st century using 20th Century models of thinking supported by a 20th century Education Act that fails to place the learner at the centre of all subsequent policy and resourcing decisions. 

But that's a post for another day…


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