When I posted a quick thought on teachers as professionals a few days ago I was planning on moving on to something else the next day. Then the comments started pouring (ok, trickling) in, and I decided to post a follow-up comment. But the comments kept coming. And now Marc Dean Millot has responded in his blog rather than adding to the pile of comments. I feel compelled to respond to his response and the other comments I've received.
Truthfully, the title "Are Teachers Professionals?" was a rather flippant and overly-general question for the top of a post in which I actually asked whether any workers in any prestigious field receive as many directives from above as teachers. I still haven't answered that question, but I'm leaning toward "no" right now.
Since I threw out the question initially, I might as well take a stab at answering it. Are teachers professionals? I don't know. On the one hand, they work in a "profession" that requires a fairly high level of training but, on the other, I don't think they're really treated like professionals by their superiors (for now I will skip the questions of why teachers are treated as they are or whether teachers act like professionals).
First, I'm not sure that there's really an accepted definition of "profession" or that, to some extent, any label matters all that much. Millot defines professionals as those who "owe a special duty of care" to their clients (by law), have the autonomy to provide it, and regulate their field. So, I agree, by his definition teachers wouldn't be professionals. But I'm not really sure that any of those three items define what it means to be a professional. Those seem like things that professionals often do rather than things that make one a professional. If we go with the dictionary definitions, professionals are simply people who have the specialized knowledge necessary to work in a field.
Furthermore, I'm not convinced that these are necessarily possible or feasible for teachers. How would one judge whether a teacher is meeting their professional obligations to students? An engineer fails if a bridge collapses. A doctor fails if they prescribe the wrong drugs or operate on the wrong foot. An accountant fails if they take an illegal deduction. When does a teacher fail? When a child fails to learn? What if the child refuses to try? Is the teacher negligent in that case? I'm not saying it's impossible to define, but it's a heck of a lot tougher than in other fields. Furthermore, I don't hear anybody arguing that professors aren't professionals and I don't see them carrying malpractice insurance or being sued for negligence. Should teachers leave the field if they neglect their job responsibilities? Yes. Would codifying their job responsibilities make them more professional? I remain unconvinced.
I'll offer less disagreement on the points about autonomy and self-policing. Unless somebody can convince me otherwise, I'd have to say that teachers do not have the autonomy of people in more prestigious fields. I'm not sure autonomy makes somebody a professional, but it's certainly a sign that somebody is one (e.g. "professional latitude"). And I'd say the same thing about policing the field. Obviously teachers don't bear much responsibility for determining who is allowed to enter and forced to leave their field. I'm not sure that this makes them unprofessional, but the "professions" do tend to police their fields (faculty are mostly in charge of hiring and tenure decisions, for example).
I'll also largely agree that there is a trade-off between accountability and autonomy. But it's not absolute (again, other than tenure, how accountable are professors for what they do?), and I'm not convinced that teachers are as unaccountable as one might think. It doesn't make the news when a lawyer posts risque photos online, but you'll hear about it if a teacher does. You won't hear about it if a doctor curses out a patient, but you will if a teacher curses out a student. You won't hear about it if a lawyer tells their client to pray with them, but you will if a teacher tells their class to pray with them. Despite the fact that teachers aren't treated like professionals in a lot of ways, they sure seem to be held to higher standards of conduct than maybe any other profession or field in this country.