Sunday, April 6, 2008

Are Teachers Professionals?

I've heard a lot of talk about teachers as professionals, or at least the desire for teachers to be professionals. I'm not sure many people would disagree that, in an ideal system, teachers would be at least close to on-par with doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.

Teachers are compared to people who work in these professions, as well as nurses, accountants, social workers, etc. somewhat frequently in research -- sometimes this is appropriate and sometimes it's not.

Regardless, here's my question of the day:

What is the most prestigious job in which people are subjected to as many directives from above as teachers?

I'm not sure what the answer is. I'm honestly not sure how much lawyers or accountants have bosses breathing down their necks (and I'm sure it varies widely), so I hesitate to even hazard a guess. It certainly varies widely in teaching, as some teachers shut their door and do their own thing while others have principals and superintendents constantly ordering them around. Ultimately, teachers are supposed to follow the directives of their supervisors (after all, they can be cited for insubordination). The curriculum they must teach might be determined by central office folk (in NYC a few years back seating and bulletin board arrangements were suggested by them as well). They are usually evaluated by supervisors on at least a yearly basis. They're limited as to how they can deal with disruptive students by school and district policy. I could go on, but I won't.

Are teachers treated less like professionals than people in equally or more prestigious jobs? Do people in other jobs have more autonomy or professional latitude than teachers? Does this matter?


avoiceinthewilderenss said...

Your questions have many layers and are therefore difficult to answer in one comment, but I'll try my best.
Teachers are not considered to be professionals in our society because we do not value education. Let's face it, our heroes are not writers, scientists and thinkers; they are sports players, actors, and singers.
People are obsessed with the antics of such individuals as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Neither of these individuals are poster children for the value of an education; yet both are portrayed as having that which we most desire-money and notoriety.
Our culture does not value literature, intellectualism or philosophy. We value more 'tangible' things such as social status and material attainment.
Individuals who seem to have gained such things are not portrayed as having to study and work hard in school in order to gain them.
What value, then, do reading and writing and intellectual pursuits have?
What value, then do those individuals who are trying to promote such pursuits have?

Hall_Monitor said...

Teachers obtain a degree in education and all of their experience is in the classrooms. This technically constitutes what it takes to be named a "professional." The irony occurs when we try to examine if they indeed act "professional." To read all the crazy (and sometimes disturbing) stories about teachers in our public schools, check out

Corey Bunje Bower said...

AVITW: It was not intended to be a simple question (otherwise I could probably find the answer). That said, you added quite a few more layers. Should I respond by asking if other countries have the same anti-intellectual undercurrents as the U.S.?

HM: One could certainly argue that the question should be twofold: (1) Are teachers treated like professionals? (2) Do teachers behave like professionals?

avoiceinthewilderness said...

I am not well traveled enough to comment fully about other countries. I have been to the UK and Ireland several times, however, and the answer there would be yes. This is not to say that they do not have their share of tabloid-mania as well (especially in the UK), but I did find less of an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism. In Ireland, I find there to be a value on story telling and writing as well as on art and music. It seems to be deeply ingrained into their culture and history.
Which brings up another point-the United States, as a culture, hasn't been around for very long.

Marc Dean Millot said...

Teachers should be professionals but are not.

The essence of professionalism is first legal liability to meet a duty of care to a specific individual and second the autonomy necessary to exercise the judgment
required to meet the duty to that person.

Public school teachers have no specific duty to their students beyond assuring their safety. They are not legally responsible for providing their students with what each needs to do and be able to do at their grade level. As others have pointed out, they have a very restricted range of discretion in what they can do for any student, and requirements to follow state, local and school policies that might even make it harder for a kid to learn.

There are many historical reasons for this, that I won't go into. But there is little doubt that we ate coming to understand that every student has a specific set of strengths and weaknesses and specific ways to learn best. We'd all like to see our kids have individualized learning plans, and we can see the technological capacity to do so on the horizon.

The questions are: 1) will teachers embrace the trade-off of autonomy for accountability that other professionals enjoy/fear and 2) will society give them the remuneration and supporting resources that other professionals have to exercise that discretion and justify being held to account for outcomes?

Marc Dean Millot said...

Should have added - See:

"Teacher Liability for Student Performance?" in edbizbuzz:

And teachers common law duty of care:

Corey Bunje Bower said...

A trade-off between accountability and autonomy makes sense, but I'm not sure where teachers fit on the continuum.

I guess you could make the argument that engineers have more legal obligation to take care of a bridge than teachers do to take care of children, but it's a lot easier to define when a bridge is poorly designed than it is to define when a child is poorly taught. Furthermore, engineers have a lot more control over what the bridge will look like than teachers do over what a child will learn.

Nancy Flanagan said...

The questions are: 1) will teachers embrace the trade-off of autonomy for accountability that other professionals enjoy/fear and 2) will society give them the remuneration and supporting resources that other professionals have to exercise that discretion and justify being held to account for outcomes? [Marc Dean Millot]

Dan Lortie's "School Teacher" (originally published in the 70s, using data from the 60s) was just republished, in 2004. I read the book early in my 30-year career as a teacher, and thought it a brilliant assessment of what Lortie calls a "truncated" profession. I re-read it last year and was soundly depressed by how little has changed in 30 years. We seem to be no closer to seeking or accepting responsibility for admission to the profession, accountability for practice, responsibility for change, policing our own, upholding high standards of practice, and so on.

Millot's asking the right questions here, and the answers are strongly colored by the size of the profession and its historically weak technical knowledge base. We still haven't come to any sort of agreement, in the U.S., on the knowledge, skills and qualities that make someone an exemplary teacher--and there is a disturbing contemporary trend toward seeing teaching as a "starter career."

It is instructive, however, to look at the way teaching is regarded in other first-world nations, including high-achieving countries. Nobody there is suggesting that a revolving door of bright recent graduates is the solution--instead, we see a highly selective gate, systematic preparation, ongoing professional learning, and teachers who approach the work as a professional career.

So maybe there's a third question--why are teachers professionals in Finland or Japan, but not fully professional here?

Marc Dean Millot said...

On reflection I should have added a third feature of professionalism.

Although society makes the practice of many trades a privilege rather than a right via some kind of licensing and/or testing requirement. professions are largely self-regulating. The privilege to practice law, medicine or accounting is granted by a governing body elected by members of that profession, and can only be taken away by the rules of that body.

For his error in surgery, a Doctor may be fired from his hospital practice, thrown onto the street by his partners, sued in civil court for malpractice and tried for murder under criminal law. But only his professional body can take away his privilege to practice medicine.

This is not true of teachers. They do not control their own licensure or professional discipline.

What is crucial about this question is one of the points raised by Bower. Yes, "it's a lot easier to define when a bridge is poorly designed than it is to define when a child is poorly taught," but the professional discipline question is whether the engineer or teachers met a level of care the profession expects of reasonable professionals in the same circumstances. The circumstances faced by lawyers, doctors and accountants that lead to disciplinary hearings are often tough calls, but professionals policing themselves make the tough calls - balancing the need for public confidence against the impossibility of perfection, and informed by an advancing state of the art.

It's worth pointing out that Bowers second point, that "engineers have a lot more control over what the bridge will look like than teachers do over what a child will learn" is accounted for in professional discipline. Time, money, circumstances - all are part of the calculation made of whether what the proffessional did - given the circumstances they confronted - met the profession's standard of care.

Now the fact of the matter is that professional disciplinary bodies do tend to go easier on their members, than say a jury in a civil trial, But that's why professional have liability insurance, and why insurance carriers also act in ways to make sure professionals take the reasonable actions justified by the state of the art at the time of the incident and so avoid liability.

Through these mechanisms, the duty of care becomes an evolving standard driving and in turn driven by an advancing state of the art. This may be a reason why the doctor or lawyer of 100 years ago could not work iun the modern hospital or law firm, but a teacher might well master most of the curriculum in their field.

Throughout the history of professions, practitioners decided that they needed to differentiate the quality providers from everyone else. They quality providers took this responsibility on themselves, and only gradually convinced government that their standards were the only valid ones. If American teachers want teaching to be a profession, some brave few will need to take the steps the legally recognized professions took in the last century, and many other would-be professions are trying to follow today.

Who will bell the cat?

Marc Dean Millot said...

For what its worth, I've taken my comments above and used them as the basis of a post in on

Anonymous said...

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 hw to make potato stampers- teachers are the least (by far) educated of everyone else you mentioned on the list and 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- 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. get real.

TheEducatedSociety said...

The definition of a professional includes ALL of the following: 1) one who has expertise in a given area; 2) one who is autonomous; and 3) is regulated by his peers.

Teaching has none of them, so the answer is no. This means that we need to reform the profession in order that they can be considered professionals. I've written more details in my post:

StudentForever said...

I would agree with avoiceinthewilderness in that our culture's value of education has declined, but I would not go so far as to say that we don't value it at all. If that was the case why is it that the number of people going to school is constantly growing? Think back to your parents or grandparents, did they ever consider going for a master's degree in college? Did you? How many people do you know nowadays?

However, I've deviated from the original question as to whether or not teachers are professionals. My answer, yes. To refute anonymous' point about "three years of schooling playing with paints" I can say as an education student with two parents who are educators, that this is far from the truth. The required courses for teachers are much more specific and structured than many of the other majors out there. In many states, teachers are being required to get master's degrees and to have experience in the classroom beyond student teaching. We take courses on Education Theory and Policy as well as Educational Psychology. The learning doesn't stop outside of the classroom, as teachers are required to spend a certain amount of time in professional development each year to become better. I'm sorry, but I have yet to have time to "play with paint" or "make potato stampers."

Teachers are shaping the future with the knowledge and experiences they impart on their students, so you would think that this great responsibility would at least put them on par with accountants.

In response to Marc Dean Millot, I would agree with much of what you said, however I think that teachers have neither autonomy nor a lack of accountability (to be clearer, they are held accountable). How many times are teachers blamed as opposed to principals, school boards, superintendents, or the government? I'm not saying the others aren't held accountable, but teachers are usually the go-to.

As for TheEducatedSociety I believe that teachers do have a good expertise to teach the levels they are instructed to. And it is not within teacher's power to be fully autonomous. I know many try to do the best they can within the guidelines, but if we want to hold this as a standard it's important to remember that the government is the one who put the restrictions there, and we have the power to change that. Write a letter to your representative. Teachers are also in some ways regulated by their peers. Many have to undergo observation by administrators, but there is also a lot of collaboration involved with teaching to produce the best outcome. Teachers are working hard to be professionals, yet we're having trouble fully letting them be.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for joining the thread late. Lets make the definition of a "professional" clear. If teaching was given the status of a proffesion, then the teachers would be personally responsible for the results of every action they take or do not take. The reason teachers enjoy the union support environment is becuase the group protects them from being held responsible for the results of their efforts. Since 1988, I began paying attention to the actions of the Government, BCTF and the audible teachers; It is too bad that they just don't get the point of responsibility and freedom. But, alas, many people employed as profesionals don't get it either.
There is a desire to be given the status of a professional by most people thus the term profession is used everywhere. As an example, all you need to do is look at the sanitary engineers who come around weekly to pickup the trash. Why do they use the term engineers when engineers are defined as profesionals?
This desire for more status and credit than is due will never end. For teachers to be professinals, they would need to agree to fire many of their coworkers and prevent them from teaching in canada ever again, quit their job and get a better paying one if they are dissatisfied instead of assaulting the public, and take personal and financial responsibility for the students in their care. I do not see this changing any time in the near future without a virtual civil war.