Is Teaching really a Profession?
A topic dear to my heart that I have read much about lately is whether or not teaching is an actual profession. As I began my research for writing this post, I discovered that part of the problem is that there is no clear consensus on what exactly denotes a profession. The definitions vary wildly around the Internet, from a basic (and mostly useless) definition to labyrinthine, full-page explanations.
Two interpretations I found were very helpful. The first, from professions.com states that a profession is
“a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards. This group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and is recognised by the public as such. A profession is also prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others.”
Another explication, developed for the medical profession reads as follows:
“Profession: An occupation … based upon the mastery of a complex body of knowledge and skills… a vocation in which knowledge… is used in the service of others. Its members are governed by codes of ethics and profess a commitment to competence, integrity and morality, altruism, and the promotion of the public good within their domain [forming] the basis of a social contract between a profession and society, which in return grants the profession a monopoly over the use of its knowledge base, the right to considerable autonomy in practice and the privilege of self-regulation. Professions and their members are accountable to those served and to society” (Cruess SR, Johnston S and Cruess RL “Profession: a working definition for medical educators”).
What does this tell us?
Now, if we examine these two definitions, a common strand is clearly possession of specialized knowledge. As a high school teacher, I have a knowledge of my subject matter that goes beyond what the average person possesses, but a non-teacher could easily understand literature or grammar to the extent I do. This is part of where the public’s difficulty in categorizing teachers arises. Many people possess the content knowledge that teachers disseminate; what distinguishes teachers as a professionals is our knowledge of pedagogy, how to apply our specialized knowledge of psychology and cognitive development to lead students to gain new content knowledge and continue doing so when they leave us. So, as a profession, teaching does meet the criterion of having a monopoly over specialized knowledge. A second common thread in these definitions is that members of a profession practice their profession for the public good. Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath and lawyers are officers of the court. While teachers are clearly functioning for the public good, we have no formal creed or oath, and so we find the first crack in the argument for teaching as a profession.
Next, the phrase “privilege of self-regulation” from the medical definition will stick in the craw of most any teacher reading this. Herein lies the real roadblock to teaching as a true profession. Education is overseen by politicians and parents far more than teachers. We are sometimes evaluated by supervisors who have never taught. Curricula are laid out by politicians trying to please voters, and teachers are often only given token input. Practicing teachers are not in charge of who enters the field, or of who leaves it. One can read rant after rant about the evils of tenure, of how tenure allows incompetent teachers on the job. In reality, a tenured teacher can be fired quite easily as long as cause is shown, which it could most easily be for most incompetent teachers. Why then, are poor teachers still on the job? I would postulate that it is because they are not a reflection of those with the power to remove them. When stories circulate about the teacher who shows movies five days a week, this does not make politicians look bad; they just launch a new crusade to “improve schools.” These stories don’t even really make administrators look bad as a whole. These stories do stand as proof over and over again to the public that teachers are paid too much, that teachers have easy jobs, that anyone could do it. No one wants bad teachers removed from teaching more than dedicated, effective teachers. Every lazy, game-playing, movie-showing teacher reflects poorly on the rest of us. If teaching were a self-regulated profession, I am willing to predict that many of the most egregious offenders would be quickly gone. Are they professionals? No, of course not. It does not take a specialized knowledge to turn on a DVD.
The Power of a Word
This brings us to why so many people do not consider teaching to be a profession, and why, sadly, it may not be. People in the general public believe that they can do what teachers do. After all, what about Sunday school teachers? Homeschool teachers? While individuals may perform well in these positions, they have not received specialized training. What they do does not correspond to a public or private school teacher’s job that demands making on-the-fly modifications for different learning styles, creating appropriate formative and summative evaluations, just to name two.
It is this idea that anyone can do what teachers do that damages the image of teaching as a profession. Mothers and fathers everywhere get up with sick children, take their temperatures, diagnose an illness, then give medication. This sounds like the work of a doctor, but these parents do not have the audacity to call themselves doctors for doing these things. They realize that they’re just scratching the surface of what a doctor does. But people who have tutored, or worked in a Sunday school class, or homeschooled often feel justified in claiming the title of teacher, unaware of the science behind what a good teacher does every day. Part of the difficulty teachers face is that we do not own the word teacher. Doctor, dentist, nurse, lawyer, architect, engineer: Each of these words is “owned” by those who practice in that field.
As teachers, we have an uphill climb. Even when we achieve a plateau, we will have no time to rest, but will only see more work ahead.
So, is teaching a profession? We have much to do before we can say yes. Are there individual professionals in the field? Most definitely! I believe we professional teachers are in a kind of limbo until we gain control of our field. Professional teachers work not just to improve the lives of their students by educating them; we strive to become better educators ourselves, and elevate the field of education. If you want to check out how one woman is working to improve our field, head over to the cult of pedagogy. You’ll find plenty of resources if you’re looking to improve your teaching; if you’re a lay person curious about how teachers do what they do, this is a good site to check out as well.
So, do you think teaching is a profession? Are individual teachers professionals? How can teachers lay claim to the title of TEACHER?