In education, talk of “the teaching profession” and “educational professionals” is commonplace. Teaching also belongs to the category of profession according to the United Nations’ International Standard Classification of Occupations International. Yet all are keenly aware that teachers do not enjoy the social prestige, generous salaries and flexible working conditions typical of professions like medicine, law, and dentistry. There may be legitimate debates over the relative social or economic importance of different occupations and whether certain fields of work receive the appreciation they deserve. The fact remains, however, that being a “professional” is a legal designation. For whatever reason, in all of Canada except for Ontario, as in most other countries in the world, teachers are not professionals in the eyes of the law. Why, then, do people in the field of education continue to speak as if teachers were professionals? Is “professional” used in some non-legal sense, perhaps as a figurative turn of phrase? Or is describing teachers as professionals a way of asserting that teachers deserve to be recognized by society as true professionals and teachers should have the right to regulate themselves in the ways that legally recognized professions do? To answer these questions, one has to go beyond dictionary definitions of “professional” and explore the meaning of the term as it applies to teachers and the work they do helping young people learn and develop in schools.
Meaning of the Term “Professional”
In a first sense, “professionals” are those who dedicate themselves full-time and usually make their livelihood doing an activity more commonly engaged in periodically or as a leisure activity. It is in this sense that we speak of professional hockey players, professional soldiers and, sometimes to poke fun, professional students or parents.
Given that “professional” refers to full-time occupation, it comes as no surprise that is also used in a second sense as a synonym for “field” or “occupation,” as in the expressions “professional orientation” and the “oldest and newest professions.” The framing of the annual surveys of the most “trusted” or most “honest and ethical” professions are consistent with this usage. A cursory glance at the jobs included in these surveys reveals an indiscriminate list of occupational groups ranging from legally recognized professionals (e.g., engineers) administrative roles (e.g., military officers), businesspeople (e.g., stock brokers) as well as members of the so-called helping professions (e.g., firefighters). Incidentally, grade school teachers are routinely classed near the top of such rankings.
When people are able to earn a living wage from an activity normally reserved for amateurs, it can suggest that they possess exceptional skill or talent in performing that activity. This observation points to a third sense of “professional.” Describing a piece of work as “professional” signifies that the job was of high quality. Whether applied to painting a room, giving a speech, or performing a piece of music, saying that it was done “professionally” means that it was well executed.
Very close semantically to this third sense of “professional” is a fourth, which denotes a commitment to excellence in one’s job. This is the sense of “professional” encapsulated in the notion of “professionalism” and “being professional”. As opposed to the idea of a “professional” job as a particular job done well, in this sense, “professional” conveys a certain attitude towards one’s occupation characterized by dedication, rigour, and conscientiousness. Fifth and finally, there is a way of using “professional” that singles out a specific category of occupations. Anyone can be professional, in the sense of excelling at or being particularly committed to one’s job. However, only those who perform a certain kind of work count as a professional. To be sure, the category of professional in this sense is porous but its defining traits normally gravitate around notions of public service and public accountability, specialized knowledge, and a commitment to high standards. Law and medicine are occupations whose status as professional is generally uncontested. Depending on how we work out the definition of “professional,” however, chiropractors, nurses, accountants, and perhaps teachers count as professions as well, and, in some jurisdictions, the law recognizes them as such.
Teaching and the Criteria of Profession
The current legal status of any occupation is a poor guide to whether it deserves legal recognition as a profession. In fact, with few exceptions, at some point in their history, all current professions had to struggle for recognition as professionals. Occupational groups including architects, audiologists, and podiatrists gained professional status by demonstrating that they met certain characteristics that qualified them for professional status. The question, therefore, of whether the work teachers do to help young people learn and develop possesses certain inherent characteristics that make it a profession comes before the question of the current legal status of teaching as a profession. But what are those characteristics and does teaching have them?
Teaching, it would seem, is at best a semi-profession. For decades now, analyses of teaching in light of the criteria of professionalism lean towards the conclusion that teaching falls short of the criteria of professionalism. Skeptics about teaching’s claim to professional status are quick to point out that teachers do not enjoy a high degree of workplace autonomy, universally recognized as a key trait of professionalism. Teachers’ work is directed and shaped by administrative controls over which teachers themselves have little or no say. The most blatant example of this is curriculum. Teachers do not get to choose what to teach. Professionals’ claim to workplace autonomy is a function of a more fundamental characteristic of professionalism: that professionals deploy in their work a highly specialized body of practical knowledge. If teaching were a good candidate for professional status, we would expect teachers to have a lot of discretion about what students are taught schools.
The problem of making a convincing case that teachers’ occupational knowledge constitutes a form of exclusive professional expertise, however, may be the most significant barrier to considering teachers professionals. Professionals are supposed to have a monopoly on a body of esoteric knowledge. What that means is that professionals know some very useful things that are generally unknown to non-professionals and that what professionals know can only be acquired through extensive specialized training, normally at a university.
Two kinds of teacher knowledge seem to fit the bill of professional knowledge: taught-subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. It takes only a moment’s reflection to appreciate, however, that taught-subject knowledge (knowledge of a particular curricular area like math, geography, or literature) and pedagogical knowledge (knowledge about how to teach and allied practical knowledge that helps facilitate learning such as class management) are both highly contestable as areas of exclusive specialized knowledge. The exclusivity of teachers’ taught-subject knowledge is undermined by the fact that, in the course of their own basic schooling, almost all adults were once taught much of what is taught in schools now. Teachers’ instructional knowledge (the “how-to” of teaching) fares little better as a form of specialized knowledge. There is a persistent and widespread belief that good teaching is more of a personal knack than a highly trained skill. Many people, including many teachers themselves, believe that any new teacher of basic intelligence and social ability can easily learn anything they need to know about how to teach on the job.
Still, one could argue that even though teaching falls short of the criteria of professionalism right now, if teaching were modified in carefully targeted ways to make it more profession-like then teaching might someday become a profession. Exactly this is what the global reform movement known as the professionalization of teaching is betting on.
The Professionalization and the Deprofessionalization of Teaching
Looking back on several decades of concerted efforts on the part of multiple stakeholders in the education system to raise the professional status of teaching, two broad strategies in pursuit of this goal are apparent.
One strategy focuses on modifying the institutional framework of teaching and teacher education so that they come to mirror those of a typical profession. The movement towards university-based teacher education illustrates the first strategy well. A key incentive to increasing the number of years of education needed to become a teacher and bringing teacher training under the auspices of universities is that it makes teacher education more profession-like in appearance. The trouble with relying on administrative means to promote teacher professionalism is that such strategies risk putting the institutional cart before the professionalism horse. There is a reason why future professionals need to spend long years studying at a university. They really do, one assumes, need to acquire a large body of research-based knowledge before they are able to practise competently. As we saw above, however, a key obstacle on the path to professionalism for teachers is trying to convince the public that teacher knowledge, be it about taught subjects or pedagogy, amounts to esoteric professional knowledge.
The other more radical approach involves trying to modify the very nature of teachers’ work so that it becomes more analogous to the kind of “knowledge work” so characteristic of classical professions. The drive to make teaching more like a profession by transforming the nature of teachers’ work so that it comes to resemble more closely the kind of work that “real” professionals do is the second, more radical approach to the professionalization of teaching. The evidence-based teaching movement is the very embodiment of this approach. Evidence-based teaching has two requirements. First, teaching needs a substantial body of scientifically sound, research-generated knowledge about how to teach effectively. Second, it requires this new and constantly evolving body of knowledge to be transferred and integrated into the day-to-day practice of classroom teachers. By all accounts, unfortunately, the progress that the educational community has made towards evidence-based teaching has been patchy at best.
In the end, perhaps what matters more than teaching’s chances of winning a seat at the high table of the professions is the process of professionalization itself. The movement to professionalize teaching may not have led to the widespread acceptance of teaching as a profession on par with law and medicine but it has yielded observable positive outcomes.
The backing of the professionalization movement by the university and college sector in particular has meant significant gains in terms of the length and quality of teacher training and quantity and rigour of useable educational research. The consequential immersion of a more intellectually rich culture of professional preparation has, in turn, provided an impetus to experiment with new methods and led many teachers to cast a critical eye on the traditional grammar of teaching as they learned it over the course of the thousands of hours they spent observing their own teachers as children in schools. Indeed, the ascendancy of progressivist philosophies of education in schools of education is such that denouncing “rote” or “drill and kill” teaching methods as authoritarian, antithetical to a love of learning, and generally ineffective in the long run has for all intents and purposes become a rite of passage for future teachers. There is still room for improvement, but few would deny that such developments are a step in the direction towards teacher professionalism.
It is no small irony, then, that while these positive changes were taking place on the academic side of teaching, a powerful countercurrent was brewing in policy circles which, by chance or by design, has drastically decreased teachers’ ability to exercise individual professional judgement in the workplace and shut them out from decision-making about the institutional structures that regulate teaching.
The 1980s was a watershed moment in teaching. It was then that governments worldwide began to craft the now familiar package of policy measures sometimes referred to as the called global educational reform movement and collectively aimed at increasing the public accountability education systems. Taking on different forms in different countries to different degrees, the key features of international education reform are instantly recognizable to anyone with a superficial acquaintance of contemporary education. These features include: high-stakes testing to measure the performance of students, schools, and teachers; standardization of student achievement through competency frameworks; intensification of instruction in core subjects, especially mathematics and the language of instruction; comprehensive mandatory curriculum; competition between schools and increased educational choice; and alternative and fast track routes to teacher certification.
There is little doubt that good intentions are behind policy initiatives associated with the global educational reform movement. Considering the deep-level challenges that educational reforms of recent decades pose to teachers’ individual professional autonomy, it is hardly surprising that the general tendency in the literature on the professional status of teachers is to portray de-professionalization as a simple fact of contemporary teaching.
Are teachers professionals? Despite the rhetoric around teacher professionalism, given the problem of considering teachers’ occupational knowledge base as a form of exclusive professional expertise and their restricted individual professional autonomy, it is safe to say that they are not. For teachers, the road to professional status is littered with obstacles. It is uncertain they will ever get there. In the meantime, and as hard as it is to achieve in taxing working conditions over which teachers have little control, there always professionalism in the sense of teachers working together to build a culture of educational excellence based on the best knowledge available to them and in service of young people and community. This kind of professionalism depends on no one but teachers themselves and nobody can take it away.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Maxwell is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Montreal. A former humanities teacher at the college level and ethicist by training, he teaches courses on education law, professional ethics, and the history of educational ideas. He has produced a number of written works on these topics including the forthcoming Educational Ethics and Law: A Guidebook for Canadian Teachers (Canadian Scholars Press, 2021).
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s online article offerings for Spring 2021.