Sunday, October 27, 2013

Are Teachers Professionals?

How can we counteract the denigration of our profession and demand our place at the decision making table? One way would be to double down on professionalism.

Teachers are currently under siege. Education reformers have targeted teachers as the culprits in what they see as American education’s failure to remain competitive with other countries. Teacher job security, salaries and pensions have come under attack by state governors advancing a misguided reform agenda. Teacher professional associations are vilified as protectors of poor performers. Teach for America is placing recent college graduates with no coursework in education into classrooms after five weeks of training and claiming they are getting great results.

The blog, Thoughts on Education Policy asked the question, Are teachers professionals? Among many reasoned responses, the question elicited this response:

Teachers are not considered to be professionals because they are not. Anyone can become a teacher and it only takes 3 years of playing with paints and learning how to make potato stampers. Teachers are the least (by far) educated of those you tried to compare them to- lawyers, doctors, accountants etc. In many cases teaching is a last minute career choice because people trained in other fields cannot get jobs. I am sick of hearing teachers rating themselves [as professionals]- you have 3 months holidays a year, you are required to work less than 7 hours a day and you only need to train for 3 years and even then the training is at a basic standard.

All righty then.  Do we dare call ourselves professionals in the face of this kind of sentiment?

Here is my favorite definition of profession: a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary retrieved October 26, 2013).

Does teaching fit the definition? Certainly, I believe teaching is a calling. Whenever I ask people why they went into teaching they talk about their love of children, their desire to make a difference in society, the pleasure they get from watching young people’s growing command of challenging skills. Some do say that teaching would allow them to balance a career and a family the way some other professions might not. Most people enter the field because they are called to it. I have encountered many second career teachers, who left a business world they did not find rewarding to teach.

Does teaching require specialized knowledge? Here again the answer is yes. Teachers require specialized knowledge in child development, pedagogy, learning styles, exceptionality, classroom management, lesson design, literacy and much more.

Is the training long and intensive? Well, if we compare the training to that of a doctor or even a lawyer, the answer is no. Teachers can get their license to teach after earning a bachelor’s degree that includes a period of practice teaching. The practice teaching is usually formally one semester, although most schools of education get their pre-service teachers into the classroom for some experience beginning in the sophomore year. From my own experience and from the experience of most teachers I have known, student teaching is intensive. Perhaps it should be more extensive. I doubt that anyone enters the classroom fully prepared and research indicates that it takes about 3-4 years to master the craft.

I believe that teaching easily meets the technical definition of a profession, but many forces keep the public from viewing teaching as a true profession. Among these forces is low pay (never a good route to respect in the US), the number of women in the profession (for ages other professions like doctors and lawyers were male dominated), the characterization of teacher professional associations as unions (think Teamsters), and the fact that all Americans have gone to school and wonder just how hard the job can be. Of course, then there are the old canards about “holidays” off and short work day schedules.

What other profession would have national standards imposed on it without the full participation of the professionals who would be affected by those standards? How is it that the teaching profession was denied a place at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) table? The CCSS and the supporting materials being distributed with them, the widespread reduction in autonomy that teachers face, the growing movement to put untrained college kids in the classroom and the insistence on tying test scores to performance, all point out that the outside world and especially the education reform world has little regard for teachers as professionals.

How can we counteract the denigration of our profession and demand our place at the decision making table? One way would be to double down on professionalism. It is one thing to be a member of a profession; it is another thing to consistently display professionalism. What would a culture of teacher professionalism look like?

1.    The production of high quality work day in and day out. This will mean well-planned and engaging lessons that have clear objectives and clear ways to assess student achievement of the objectives. Providing students with clear, formative feedback that will help them improve their learning.

2.    A high standard of professional ethics. This will mean putting the student first in all considerations, not in the reformy way that this is used as a battering ram against unions. This means never denigrating a child either to his/her face or in the teacher’s lounge during lunch. It also means never denigrating other professionals with whom you work in front of parents or others. One of the great sadnesses of my career in education was to hear teachers say to students or parents that a previous teacher should have taught something and now the class was behind. Professionals don’t bash each other to their clients.

3.    Insisting on a level of autonomy in your instructional decision making. It is the law in most states that the local school board establish the curriculum and that teachers carry it out. Beyond that it is the professional's job to determine how best to deliver that curriculum to the students in the classroom. We must assert our autonomy in finding the best instructional practices to meet the needs of our students.

4.    Maintaining a consistently collegial attitude toward fellow teachers and supervisors. Teachers must show a willingness to share ideas and provide support to junior colleagues and to learn from all colleagues.

5.    Having the ability and willingness to reflect upon instruction and seek ways to improve performance. Improved performance can come from personal research, dialogue with colleagues or from seeking out relevant professional development opportunities.

6.    Meeting deadlines and keeping accurate records.

7.    Maintaining open lines of communication with parents and members of the public.

8.    Being a life-long learner. This means reading the current journals, keeping up with the research and furthering your education through pursuit of advanced degrees.

9.    Treating professional development opportunities seriously and attempting to learn from every such opportunity. Treating professional development providers with respect (as long as they respect you and observe all the characteristics of professionalism listed here). I recently did a presentation to a group of teachers and afterward a teacher who had attended and was clearly a master teacher, thanked me and said she learned something. I thanked her and said I hoped she learned something she could use in her classroom. She then said, “I always learn something at professional development even though I have been doing this for a long time.” This is a professional attitude.

10.  Being an advocate for children, teachers and teaching. This means writing letters to the editor when the local newspaper supports some reform agenda that is bad for kids and education. It means letting your voice be heard when draconian testing policies are put in place. It means helping the public draw the curtain back on the phony “we’re in it for the kids” rhetoric of the corporate reform movement. It means being a cheerleader for all that is right and good about our profession and a loud and persistent scold about all that is wrong.

What do you say? Let’s stand up and speak out for our calling as a profession. We can do it by modeling professionalism, treating each other as professionals and keeping our voices in front of the public as the concerned, knowledgeable and capable professionals that we are.