Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

Sarah Blaine is the author at the excellent and thoughtful Parenting the Core blog.  She recently explored the question of whether or not teaching is a profession, recounting a law professor who argued teaching was not a profession because teachers did not control entry to the profession as doctors and lawyers do.  Ms. Blaine took that observation to a very intriguing and, I think, valuable discussion of how teachers could play a bigger and, consequently, far more informed than current regulators role in how people enter teaching.  It is worth your time to read the whole piece.

It also has spurred me to ponder the ways in which teaching is a profession, but a profession unlike most others that have high status in society.  Further, I have to wonder to what degree the efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s to construct a vision of teacher professionalism that is similar to those in medicine and law has contributed, at least indirectly, to some of our current dilemmas in what passes today for education “reform.”  Beginning with the A Nation At Risk report, teacher organizations and teacher research cast for ways by which the profession can embody the elements of professionalism and professionalization that define other fields of endeavor, but in doing so, we have opened ourselves to reforms that actually debilitate teaching and learning.

The status of teaching in general and of the teaching as a discipline for study is not a new problem.  David Labaree, in his collection of essays, The Trouble With Ed Schools, traces teaching and teacher preparation’s status anxiety back to the establishment of normal schools which were under pressure to turn out large numbers of mostly working class women to teach in the growing compulsory school systems of the 1800s.  When normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, the new education schools with their teacher training missions were marginalized by the more established and prestigious fields of classical studies who relied on education schools to bring students to the universities but who did not respect teaching as a discipline of study and who did not respect the largely female population studying it.

The public’s familiarity with teaching and with teachers also complicates questions of professional status.  Unlike most other fields with professional expertise nearly every adult in society has extensive and intensive contact with teachers practicing their profession.  Doctors and lawyers are capable of enshrouding their professions in mystery because the average citizen, thankfully, has only periodic and limited needs of their services.  The average citizen, in contrast, spends more than 13,000 hours in teachers’ classrooms during what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” through which most people conclude that they are entirely familiar with the work of teachers and develop very strong assumptions about what it is that teachers know and do.  However, this familiarity is facile.  Students are not privy to the preparation that goes into teaching, nor do they understand what it is like to enact teaching while maintaining attention on each and every learner in the classroom, adjusting and pivoting as necessary, and taking effective opportunities when they present themselves. The result is that despite the enormous amount of time spent with teachers, very few former students see teaching as a highly complex practice that requires expertise and substantial experience.

The search for a definition of teacher professionalism may not be new, but it  began in earnest with the devastating rhetoric of the 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation At Risk which reported:

  • Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Education leaders and policy makers rushed to respond to these criticisms. Teachers and teacher educators are familiar with the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report A Nation Prepared, the various reports of the Holmes Group, John Goodlad’s Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report What Matters Most, the development of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium model teaching standards, increasing influence of organizations such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and with a growing industry of educational consultants such as Charlotte Danielson providing standards based rubrics and frameworks for teacher evaluation.

This mass body of work and effort and the attending changes in state and national policies that have flowed from them work on a vision not merely of teacher professionalism, the knowledge, skills, actions, and dispositions of professional teachers, but also of teacher professionalization, efforts to more closely align teaching and teacher preparation with the standards and technical rationales of high status professions such as medicine and law.  Such efforts appeal on two fronts.  First, they attend to concerns that teachers need more rigorous preparation for the difficult work of teaching and that teachers who complete their education with strong content knowledge, deep pedagogical knowledge, substantial understanding of learning and motivation, and who have meaningful experiences in the classroom prior to student teaching will have easier transitions into the world of full time teaching and begin their careers more able to help students learn.  Second, this reconfiguration of teacher preparation and conceptualizing of teaching as a profession akin to medicine and law attempted to instill higher status upon the profession in general.  Terms like “clinical experience” and “professional development school” and “master teacher” all convey a message that learning to teach is a rational experience with technical components that can be measured and that teachers should have ongoing and mediated entry into the professional roles much doctors who master a complex body of knowledge and then move into increasingly responsible roles within practice over time.  By adopting the preparation and learning structure of high status professions, teaching was envisioned to occupy a greater level of respect more commensurate with the importance of its mission.

There is much to recommend in this approach, and such efforts have spurred genuine innovations to improve how teachers are prepared.  It is important to acknowledge that contrary to many popular beliefs teachers possess specialized knowledge far beyond their understanding of the content that they teach.  Further, much as the technical knowledge of medicine and law must be put into practice, knowledge of content, theory, and pedagogy must be practiced in order to become skilled and it must slowly improve over time with the accumulation of experience.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher professionalization discussion has been the continued focus upon moving from theory to practice in a controlled and mediated fashion, allowing prospective teachers to practice and to learn from practice long before they undertake full time teaching duties.

However, while moves to make learning to teach more clinical have opened valuable efforts to increase time teaching before licensure, it is vital that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers understand the ways in which teaching is not like those high status professions professionalization has attempted to imitate.  To begin with, while there is an important knowledge base for teaching, it is a much softer knowledge than that held by high status professions.  Before moving into technical practice of medicine, medical students learn a tremendous amount of knowledge that is well-defined and clearly delineated.  This does not mean that medical knowledge is never changing; obviously, it is.  However, those changes take place through pain-staking research and replication before it can become part of the body of knowledge for practice.  When compared to this, teachers’ knowledge is less defined, more subject to change, and subject to particular circumstances that vary day to day and class to class.  Experienced teachers know that a “best practices” teaching strategy may not be a “best practice” for a particular bit of content or with a particular group of students, and because teaching has to be enacted authentically by individual teachers, different practitioners can find that so-called “best practices” are not “best practices” for them. Teachers are constantly experimenting and tinkering with their practice, often within the act of practice itself.

Lawyers can rely upon volumes of case law, and doctors have mountains of medical research backing their choices, but there is no laparoscopic appendectomy for teaching a room of 6 year olds how to read.

This should greatly complicate our desires to present teaching as a profession that can be mapped onto the professional education of fields that employ a more technical/rational approach.  Standards based preparation and evaluation can provide important starting points and frameworks for discussing, assessing, and improving teaching, but the rubrics and evaluation scores cannot become ends unto themselves.  Preparation and evaluation do a great disservice to teachers and teaching when rubric scores become more important than discussions about students and their learning that can be prompted by the categories on the rubric.  Too much of a focus on the technical at the expense of developmental understanding of learners and their needs reduces teachers’ teaching and students’ learning to outcomes which can be superficially inflated without substance.

It is possible that the teacher professionalization movement’s efforts, as well intentioned as they have been, are responsible for some of the mess that education “reform” has made of the teacher evaluation and testing environment.  After all, if teaching is a technical/rational activity whose practices result in observable and measurable outcomes, then it was not a big sell to policy makers for figures like Michelle Rhee and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to suggest that teachers should be evaluated using supposedly “objective” results like standardized test scores.  Run through statistical formulas that claim to account for a vast number of variables that can impact students’ test score gains, reformers promise that test data, as a component of teacher evaluation, offers a fully objective view of teacher effectiveness. This slots nicely with the view of teacher professionalization that emphasizes measurement of teacher practice — even though the bulk of the evidence now says that such modeling does not work.

There are other reasons to question the teacher professionalization models or at least to insist that they be made more complex and nuanced.  To begin with, unlike high status professions, teaching is, by necessity, a vast field.  Doctors and lawyers maintain careful control on their supply and high skill specialties are even tighter, but the reality of compulsory, public, free education means that we need enough teachers, teaching specialists, and paraprofessionals to teach 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools.  In any labor market, that means that teaching cannot claim a high status simply because supply has to be high compared to other professions requiring college education and certification.  We may value, or at least claim to value, teachers and the work they do for our society, but from the standpoint of scarcity, we cannot compare the field to others, and it would take a significant change in our society’s values to do so.  Further, the long history of low status associated with fields that are predominantly female is still with teaching, which remains a profession dominated by female practitioners.

Teacher professionalization is also complicated by the previously mentioned apprenticeship of observation.  While the long contact time with teachers and schools does not actually instruct the public about the fullness and the complexities of teaching, it does lend an extreme familiarity with teachers themselves and with the visible aspects of their practice that no other profession really has.  Hard knowledge professions carefully guard their knowledge within specialized preparation and language, effectively blocking outsiders from access without the mediation of the professional.  Teachers, from the public’s view, are in the business of giving knowledge away and making it more accessible.  While pedagogical knowledge is not readily available to non-teachers, the practice of it is visible in thousands of hours spent in teachers’ classrooms, the best of which result in students able to learn on their own.  The public may not really understand teaching, but there would be little value in the profession cloaking itself in the mystique conferred upon lawyers and doctors whose practice depends almost entirely upon their clients and patients being unable to practice for themselves.

The aura of mystery about knowledge and professional language in other fields is often accompanied by a general obligation to be distant and to minimize personal involvement with clients and patients.  Teachers, however, sit in an unusual place in terms of relationships with their “clients” and frequently need to cultivate professional but close relationships with individuals and groups of students that foster motivation and provide the affective support students need to succeed.  Many conceive of this as a mentoring relationship that helps students not only academically but also with social and emotional needs.  This stance both helps students and also comprises a significant portion of the “psychic rewards” that teachers historically report among the most gratifying aspects of their jobs.  Much like the deployment of pedagogy, such relationships and their attendant rewards will remain particular and impossible to measure in any rational sense, yet they remain among the core practices of teaching.

During the height of the teacher professionalization literature, David Hansen wrote cogently about teaching as a vocation and what that means to practitioners:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

This is extremely important as we continue to discuss and debate what teaching as a profession means and what it looks like in practice.  I would not suggest abandoning all of the elements of teacher professionalization as we work to develop a rich view of teachers as professionals, but it is important to recognize the limits of standards and measurement.  Standards and rubrics for evaluation should be used as means to focus conversation on practice and its continued development rather than to focus on specific score bands on evaluations themselves.  We should flatly reject continued efforts to reduce teachers’ impact to fully rational statistical outcomes that have no proper basis in research.  And we should passionately embrace those aspects of teachers’ professionalism that is immeasurable and defend them as essential to teachers’ work.  Maybe we cannot measure inspiration and passion for children and their intellectual, social, and emotional development, but without those qualities, performances on professional standards rubrics are probably meaningless.

5 Comments

Filed under Data, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing

5 responses to “Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

  1. If teachers are held accountable for their actions through a prescribed set of standards, how would this not be considered a profession. A teacher can be removed from the field much like a lawyer can be disbarred for breach of professional ethics. If that isn’t considered being involved in a profession versus a vocation then it is time to go one a permanent vacation for not being respected for the time and continuous effort it takes to be a foundational contributor and influencer of our nation’s children.

    • Very true. At the same time we should resist relying too heavily on comparisons to other professions whose core practices are so different. Teaching is quite unique and its most inspiring successes often defy quantified measures.

      • Yet, if the concern of definition is whether or not it’s a profession, I wonder how it could not be considering the specific requirements needed to get a certificate to practice the structure of learning. The comparison to other professions that require taking specific courses, passing mandated tests, and upholding to set standards still holds. Teaching is indeed a profession since we are accountable to professional standards.

  2. Pingback: Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others | terryclarke blog

  3. Pingback: Frank Bruni, See Me After Class | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s