Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Teaching "Profession?"


I read David Warlick's comments on teaching as a profession at his 2¢ Worth blog, and it conjured up a question I have struggled with ever since becoming a teacher... do I belong to a profession?

In David's post, "The Teaching Profession," he describes an ongoing conversation at Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed blog pondering the question whether teaching is a profession. David states that,
Semi-profession might actually be generous. Much of the job, especially as addressed by NCLB, is more like being a technician, applying prescribed, researched, and government-approved techniques on students, based on high-precision measurements... I suspect that the term professional, has described teachers because they've earned a college degree, and years ago they were among the only people in many communities who were educated to that level.
It's true, teachers have been called professionals, and for all the right reasons; I agree that we are. I can't, however say that just because teachers act professionally, that we belong to a profession. Defining a profession is evidently not as easy as it sounds. Even the Wikipedia article on the subject is controversial. The article mentions its own factual accuracy as potentially questionable. The part of this article under dispute is about the vernacular vs. legally-accepted use of the term. So often in education we use terms that we don't seem to implicitly understand, and alas it appears, that referring to teachers en masse as a profession may be another one of those terms. I don't believe that acquiring a university degree automatically means a person is a professional.

 So, I think we need some context if the rest of this post is going anywhere. One thing I've noticed about other "professions" is the relative control and influence they have over their own ranks, and also their purpose for existing in the first place. I'm not sure that within this context I could confidently define teaching as a profession. Teachers as professionals don't enjoy much control or influence over their own practice, and they sure don't appear to have much control or influence over what they're expected to do and how they do it.

My friend Joe Bower wrote a great piece recently at his For the Love of Learning blog entitled Five Ways to Get Education Right. In the post Joe compares Seth Godin's perspective from his new book Small is the New Big, regarding five reasons why companies make mistakes and then do nothing to remedy them, with what he feels is wrong with education reform. I'm going to key on Godin's second reason- The people in the field aren't given the ability to influence management without appearing to be troublemakers. Joe correlates this reason with the ridiculous concepts within education of larger rewards (merit pay) for "good teachers," or that harsher punishments (mass firings) will induce poor teachers to be better. I'm not sure that's a straight across correlation, but I think there's another possibility. I think Godin's second example of a mistake the business world makes correlates well with the biggest mistake education makes, and the one I feel precludes professional teachers from membership in a true profession... a lack of control and influence from within our ranks. We don't control or influence our own people, and we don't control or influence our purpose... the autonomy true professions enjoy regarding these points is not shared by teachers.

In Canada doctors have their College of Physicians and Surgeons, lawyers have their Bar Association and engineers have their Association of Professional Engineers. Within these cohorts, accreditation is granted, and monitoring of purpose is a perpetual responsibility that defines each cohort as a profession; they control their own. Teachers belong to their associations too, but there are two critical differences. Firstly, I received my accreditation from the government Department of Education, not my professional association. Secondly, the monitoring of my professionalism is ultimately the responsibility of the same Department of Education... the Minister of Education signs my teaching certificate, and only the Minister of Education can take it away. The critical difference between the teaching cohort, and the professional cohorts that lawyers, doctors and engineers belong to, is the ability of the latter to have control and influence over their ranks, and control and influence over their purpose. Teachers don't have this same control and influence because for some reason, we are not trusted to act on them responsibly.

So it boils down to respect in my opinion. There is no better entity to direct the future of education than teachers, but the general consensus among non-teachers seems to be otherwise. Teachers need to lobby and advocate for this privilege. We need to display our professionalism and work much more closely with our associations to assert that more autonomy to do what is pedagogically sound, morally and ethically proper and professionally astute would allow teachers to be seen as the knowledgeable and responsible experts they know themselves to be.

Perhaps then we won't be a bunch of professionals without a profession anymore.

17 comments:

  1. Sean,

    I think you hit the nail on the head a number of times with regards to how society views teachers. I was having this discussion the other day with a couple of colleagues though I framed it in a different light. Is there any correlation to the lack of respect that teachers receive and the fact that they are required to provide the service? In other words, you don't HAVE to go to the doctor's office or find a lawyer, but you do HAVE to send your child to school. Does the idea of compulsory education diminish the amount of respect that teachers receive simply because parents don't feel obligated to give it? I tend to wonder if society would treat teachers differently if we were not required to admit students or maintain their enrollment.

    Obviously, I am not advocating for us to start throwing kids out of school so that we can earn a higher status. I just think it is one more piece of the puzzle that we need to consider as we tackle the "profession" question.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Aaron- interesting point.

    Seems to me that realtivism has reared it's ugly head. I agree that the distinction you mention regarding compulsory education is a factor in how society views teachers, but I think teachers are our own worst enemies as far as we buy into this phenomena.

    I think many forms of relativisn have emerged in contemporary ed: behavior relativism; pedagogical relativism; respect relativism... even a relativistic view on dress code for teachers. As you know, it's difficult in some middle and high schools to tell the teachers from the students based on physical appearance.

    Professional is as professional does I guess, and teachers have let their guard down... lowered the bar to match the lagging respect we get from those we serve. If we are going to expect a greater degree of respect from our captive group of students, we need to raise the bar from within our ranks and expect more from ourselves first. Yes students have to attend school, but that shouldn't deter us from providing top-notch educational environments and services... we can't just go through the motions.

    What do ya think?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sean,

    You just got me on one of my biggest pet peeves of the way that teachers present themselves: their dress. I wear a shirt and tie almost every day, and when I don't I wear a button-up shirt, dress pants, and sports coat. Part of this is my personality as I have always been a fan of the button-up look, but I can't understand how some teachers dress in the morning with the knowledge that they are a role model and going to instruct kids. Jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and the like are ridiculous and should be banned from school. Now, I understand that Physical Education teachers need to be in "jump suits" and elementary teachers "are on the floor with kids" but there is still a way to look presentable with those factors in mind. The way that some teachers dress in school drives me crazy, and it is definitely a roadblock to teachers being viewed as a respected authority figure.

    I agree with your assessment that we need to expect more from ourselves first. There is a lot of hoopla about "Teach for America" in the states and how they are pumping out great teachers based on some formula (teaching isn't formulaic). Regardless of how we feel about TFA, they set a high bar and force their teachers to hold up to a certain standard. Are they all like this? Absolutely not. But there is still a degree of responsibility that these individuals have to uphold the reputation of TFA. The other national unions (NEA & AFT) seem to believe that their efforts to simply bring teachers under one canopy is good enough. My point is that, regardless of how we feel about TFA, the educational profession needs to raise the bar on how we act and are viewed by society exactly as you stated. Part of this has to come from "within the ranks" efforts to get others in line. Putting teachers at center stage, as TFA has done, is a way to get positive views from society...so long as teachers hold up their end of the bargain.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Interesting posting. In Ontario the College of Teachers regulates the profession - this college, as other professional colleges are, is represented by teachers. To further clarify this position we have recently received a professional designation, OCT (Ontario Certified Teacher). From the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers) - yes it is a little confusing, you would think someone at some point would have noticed the same letters stand for two phrases - website:

    "The Ontario College of Teachers was established in 1997 to allow teachers to regulate and govern their own profession in the public interest. Teachers who want to work in publicly funded schools in Ontario must be certified to teach in the province and be members of the College.

    The College:

    ensures Ontario students are taught by skilled teachers who adhere to clear standards of practice and conduct
    establishes standards of practice and conduct
    issues teaching certificates and may suspend or revoke them
    accredits teacher education programs and courses and
    provides for ongoing professional learning opportunities for members.
    The College is accountable to the public for how it carries out its responsibilities. "

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yes, and the "holding up their end of the bargain" side of of putting teachers/teaching on center stage is most improtant in my opinion. Teachers must look, talk, and act the part based on the highest standards in order to gain respect from those we serve. We must be beyond reporach ethcially, morally and socially in oder to earn the regard our "profession" deserves.

    Thanks for the feedback!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Interesting posting. In Ontario the College of Teachers regulates the profession - this college, as other professional colleges are, is represented by teachers. To further clarify this position we have recently received a professional designation, OCT (Ontario Certified Teacher). From the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers) - yes it is a little confusing, you would think someone at some point would have noticed the same letters stand for two phrases - website:

    "The Ontario College of Teachers was established in 1997 to allow teachers to regulate and govern their own profession in the public interest. Teachers who want to work in publicly funded schools in Ontario must be certified to teach in the province and be members of the College.

    The College:

    ensures Ontario students are taught by skilled teachers who adhere to clear standards of practice and conduct
    establishes standards of practice and conduct
    issues teaching certificates and may suspend or revoke them
    accredits teacher education programs and courses and
    provides for ongoing professional learning opportunities for members.
    The College is accountable to the public for how it carries out its responsibilities. "

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks jrajalingham,
    In Alberta we have the Alberta Teachers' Assocation that represents AB teachers in similar ways you describe the OCT to with two critical differences-
    -issues teaching certificates and may suspend or revoke them
    -accredits teacher education programs and courses
    The ATA operates alongside these processes, but ultimately, certification (and revokation of certification,) and accredidation issues are the responsibility of the AB Govt. Dept. of Education.
    It would be my wish that the ATA would be granted these responsibilities as the OCT has- then we would be much more closely aligned with your governing body, and those that govern other professions.
    Cheers,
    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't necessarily agree with the statement,"We must be beyond reproach ethically, morally and socially in order to earn the regard our "profession" deserves." I think we will not be professional until we make education our focus. It might be easy to argue focusing on these standards actually take away from the purpose of teaching, to teach.

    Remember the archaic rules teachers used to have regarding their personal life? I don't remember seeing any of them directly relate to student learning. Why perpetuate an archaic system of "professional conduct" when it doesn't help us focus on the actual goal?

    There is no doubt that teachers in the US and Canada go through a certification process, but so do beauticians. If we expect to be perceived as professionals we should not point to a certification process, that just isn't good enough.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks Wm Chamberlain.
    I have read about those ärchaic rules"you refer to... but that's not what Im talking about. Professional "relativism" is what's hurting us.

    'As long as we're focusing on students, why should anyone be concerned with how we look, act and conduct our professional business'... seems to be the neo order of teacher professionalism. I don't think this relativistic point of view is good enough.

    Professionalism is defined in fairly tight parameters, and teaching in general doesn't necessarily fit within them. One major reason in my opinion is the lack of a governance sturcture that monitors and supports the "profession" of teaching. We need professional governing bodies to prove to our detractors, (and there are many,) we are serious about what we do. The certification process is where it begins, but the ongoing collegiality and monitoring from within is how the professional identity would perpetuate.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Interesting stuff. As a parent in the US I have to say that I'm not really a fan of the teacher unions here, which may just be the fault of the media. The only time the unions are in the news is when they are fighting for contract benefits and threatening to strike. I've always wondered why they are not making as much noise about how NCLB hinders teachers from doing their actual jobs of teaching.

    As far as respect from the parents and students that teachers serve - actions speak louder than anything, including the way teachers dress. Most of my daughter's middle school teachers had such horrible attitudes and lack of respect toward me and my daughter that my general feeling regarding teachers, as a whole, is slipping toward the negative.

    My daughter has a lot of trouble keeping up with the curriculum, she is a classified student, and the rate at which material is covered and expected to be grasped by students leaves her floundering and struggling very quickly, especially in math. Though I explained this at the annual review, by October I was getting almost daily e-mails from both the math and special ed. teacher about missing and incomplete homework assignments, the need for medication to help her pay attention (my daughter does not have ADHD)and her poor work-ethic. And no matter how I explained what they were seeing was a kid who was completely lost, and so overwhelmed that she didn't even know how to being to complete the required assignments. They're answer - she's lazy and just needs to apply herself. Not only did they place the blame on my daughter for not learning fast enough but they blamed me for not forcing her to do her homework. I saw no reason for making her do 20 math problems when after the first two, I could see she didn't know how to do it.

    And that scenario played out each year of middle school. With the addition of the snide and degrading ways they spoke to my daughter in school. By the end of 8th grade, I was yelling in the psychologists office like a crazy woman and telling them not to expect a single assignment from my daughter for the rest of the year. As long as they were going to continue to accuse of her of being lazy and to insist she just apply herself, instead of actually helping her through her struggles, I was going to continue to downplay the role of school and focus my daughter's time and energy in the areas outside of school where she functioned at her best to counter the feelings of stupidity and inadequacy they fostered in her.

    I ask you honestly, does this sound like a group of teachers who deserve respect?

    While things are better now that my daughter is in high school, I'm left bitter and jaded by the conduct of the middle school teachers, and dumbfounded by the automatic assumption that when students don't learn something it is their own fault.

    Attend any special ed. PTA meeting and you'll hear similar stories.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks Nicole once again. You have had an experience that I know others have had.

    I taught in what is referred to as a coded special education program in my province for 8 yrs. My program was designed and intended to serve the needs of code 42 kids (severe emotional/behavioral problems.) I also taught within First Nations communities on Reserve for 5 years before that... I know implicity about the struggles you refer to on behalf of your daughter. A comment you amade that resonates with me in particular is the one mentioning that teachers suggested your daughter be medicated. Without knowing the details, this is very questionable advice from a teacher presuming that the teacher is not a medical doctor or psychiatrist in addition to being a teacher. Teachers simply aren't qualified to make that diagnosis.At any rate, you've broached many issues in your comment...(I have blog post ideas running wild in my head;0)

    My perspective on dealing with students as people before getting serious about the requisite level they should be taught is simply to make a point to learn their 'story.' I'd love to hear your comments on Personal Learning Stories from Feb. 7, 2010.

    Have a fantasitc week!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Once again Sean, you are right on the mark. Teachers are not supposed to advise a parent on medicating a child in any way, shape or form. On that comment alone I could probably sue the district. That in addition to many other issues had me thinking about contacting a lawyer on several occasions. However, the amount of time and money it would take to actually sue deters me when I can better spend my time and money in places supporting my daughter's passions and talents in the world beyond school, which in turn serves my daughter better in her personal growth and development.

    Now I'm off to the Feb. 7th post . . .

    ReplyDelete
  13. I have some deep seated perspecitves on special eduaction as I'm sure you are noticing... I should write more on the topic even though I'm not directly teaching in that context anymore, I find that whatever is done to support kids on the spectrum of special eduaction is never bad for kids who aren't- are kids really all that different?
    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  14. I also think that the key to fixing the system can be found in the area of special education. Every time I read something about learning disabilities I find myself thinking "If only schools did this in general . . ." I'm convinced that we call "learning disabilities" are actually "school disabilities" and that if more of the special ed. theories and practices were adapted the special ed. population would shrink to the truly disabled students who's issues go beyond the academic. Both population of students would be better served and benefited, while I'm sure a lot of time and money would be saved.

    That's why I tend to refer to struggling students instead of LD students or special ed. students. The reality is all students struggle and find certain topics more difficult to grasp at one time or another.
    Namaste

    ReplyDelete
  15. I totally agree... at one time I was in favour of congregated programming, but I have evolved to believe that an integrated teaching and learning environment can be very positive and productive when done correctly.

    All students (people) struggle, that is for sure. It's how we cope with our struggles that determines our resiliency and relative success.

    Cool you say Namaste... do you speak Punjab?

    Cheers,
    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't speak Punjab, I speak the "Yoga Pose" language lol. I love Eastern Philosophy and I love the simple, but powerful meaning of Namaste - the simple recognition of the divine in all of us. It occurred to me to start using it here because it seems to be an underlying theme of the discussion for education reform. The desire for the system to recognize while we are all different in our learning and teaching styles, thought processes, abilities, and strengths and weaknesses; we are also the same we all have our struggles and that at any given time each of us is doing the best we can. I need to keep reminding myself of that because sometimes the emotions become too overwhelming.

    Overall, students struggling in school would be just fine if the punitive, negative attitude toward struggle wasn't so pervasive in our culture. At some point we (Western culture) became a perfectionist society with little tolerance for mistakes and struggle and that's exactly what our schools are reflecting. Huh, look at that - I think I just had an epiphany :)
    Namaste,
    Nicole

    ReplyDelete
  17. "Overall, students struggling in school would be just fine if the punitive, negative attitude toward struggle wasn't so pervasive in our culture...
    You are right on with this... check out "Oops, I made a mistake; am I still learning?" from Feb. 2, 2010.

    Re. "we all have our struggles and that at any given time each of us is doing the best we can..." also check out the book "The Art of Possibility" on my bookshelf, by Rosamund Stone-Zander and Ben Zander- pretty sure you'd like it.

    Namaste

    ReplyDelete

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