Thursday, April 10, 2008

Even More on Teachers and Professionalism

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.


Marc Dean Millot said...

I try to be fair to my fellow blogger - credit where credit is due etc. So I can't help but take "rather than adding to the pile of comments" as disapprobation.

So just to be accurate...

I first offered most of my comments on your previous post in that "item's comments section. Indeed, you responded to them.

Subsequently, I decided to pull them together and flesh them out. I posted them on my blog edbizbuzz and linked my post to your site. I tried to locate an email address for you so I could tell you what I'd done, but failed. So I posted a final comment to inform you as much as your readers.

I may have more substantive comments late. For the most part we seem to differ on the meaning of "professional." You favor a broad one, I prefer a narrow choice. You doubt a "standard of care" towards students could be defined, or judged by peers.

I think we've taken the second point as far as we can go. Readers should compare our two posts and decide for themselves.

The first point may be worth more discussion. If we chose to go with the broad dictionary definition, I don't see its utility to any debate about the teaching "profession." It would be no different from discussing the hair stylist profession, the gardening profession, the barbering profession, the butchering profession. All have specialized knowledge necessary to work in a field. So what?

When the term "professional" is used in combination with "teacher"it is rarely intended as an analogy to butchers or hair stylists. It is intended in the sense of teaching being one of "the professions."

Consider the introduction to the Wikipedia entry "Profession"

"A profession is an occupation, vocation or career where specialized knowledge of a subject, field, or science is applied. It is usually applied to occupations that involve prolonged academic training and a formal qualification. It is axiomatic that "professional activity involves systematic knowledge and proficiency." Professions are usually regulated by professional bodies that may set examinations of competence, act as a licensing authority for practitioners, and enforce adherence to an ethical code of practice....

Professions include, for example: Doctors/Surgeons, Lawyers, Nurses, Engineers, Teachers, Diplomats, Professors, Priests, Architects, Pilots, Accountants, Physical Therapists and some other specialized technical occupations....

A profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through "the development of formal qualifications based upon education and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights."

The process by which a profession arises from a trade or occupation is often termed professionalization and has been described as one, "starting with the establishment of the activity as a full-time occupation, progressing through the establishment of training schools and university links, the formation of a professional organization, and the struggle to gain legal support for exclusion, and culminating with the formation of a formal code of ethics."[4]

An important example of a profession is teaching."

This full definition - the extent to which teachers do meet the idea, whether they should, and how they might is worth discussing, because it has specific implications for the future of teaching and teachers.

At least to my mind, the other is simply musing.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I didn't mean it that way at all. I find piles of comments unwieldy, so I was glad that you started a new post rather than adding to the pile.