The Teaching Profession

The varying perceptions which societies, policy-makers, and teacher educators have of teachers is an influential factor on how teachers are prepared and how their professional development is promoted. Here, we try explore teaching and teachers in detail.

Views on the role of teachers are culturally and socially embedded, and teachers’ own perspectives of their role and profession affect, and are affected by, the conception of teaching that is prevalent in their societies. It is said that even the mere fact that we observe and study teachers reflects how highly we esteem them, For example, Spanish teachers who work in a ‘democratic management system’ in which headteachers are elected from among teachers in the schools, most often tend to think of leaching as a collaborative activity and have a greater sense of responsibility towards the local community; while French teachers tend to think of their role as relating to expertise in their subject area of specialisation and do not consider their responsibility to encompass the pastoral care that English teachers value more highly.

Some of the metaphors that have been used to define the profession and the roles of teachers with their implications for professional development are presented below.

Teachers as artists

Teachers have been likened to artists, particularly when the literature refers to the process of teaching as being an art rather than a science. This idea was presented in 1891 by William James in his book Talks to Teachers in Psychology and still exists over a century later, despite the fact that little evidence has been gathered to support the concept of teaching being an art and that “little theoretical work [has been] devoted to analysing what’ art’ means in this widely used metaphor”. There are two points of interest raised by this metaphor: one being that it is usually employed by writers other than educational researchers; the other is that usually when the metaphor is used, there is no clarification as to what kind of artist the teacher is, whether he or she is executing his or her own production, or interpreting someone else’s. Jamous and Pelloille, two French sociologists, carried out studies focusing on each of the professions’ location in a two-dimensional space of ‘indeterminacy’ and ‘technicality’. It appears to these authors that the origin of this metaphor of teaching being an art is related to the indeterminate skills that are usually associated with the process of teaching. Some of the research carried out to test the validity of this metaphor has focused on the indeterminate variables of the art of teaching, the hidden curriculum, and the “tacit, implicit, and unexamined facets” of the profession. When policy-makers think of teaching as an art, little is done to promote the professional development of teachers, as, usually, those who believe that teaching is an art also believe that people are ‘born’ teachers (as opposed to trained as teachers) and that their development as teachers is ‘natural’ (as opposed to planned and systematically promoted). Even now in the twenty-first century, when so much is known about the skills and knowledge that teachers need to learn and practise in order to be effective teachers, many, in and outside of teaching, still believe that teachers are born with a special gift, and thus professional development is not of great importance.

If not artists, workers or professionals?

There have been debates over the years and throughout nations as to whether teachers are professionals as opposed to mere ‘workers’, and whether teaching is a profession and not just an ‘occupation’. In Latin America, for example, there was a transition in the 1960s and 1970s in the terms used to refer to teachers; from “professionals de la ensenanza” [teaching professionals] the term was changed to “trabajadores de laensenanza” [teaching workers]. AIso, the Japanese Teachers Union defines teachers as ‘workers’ or ‘proletarians’, and, as most Unions, it has done very little to help teachers achieve professional status, as their main concern has been to increase teachers’ salaries. In addition, the Japanese Government regards teachers as ‘servants of the state’ and not as professionals. This debate represents more than a disagreement over semantics, as it has a number of implications for the way in which we perceive teachers and their professional development.

In 1990, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development presented an analysis of the factors that affect teachers’ professional status and discussed why teachers were more commonly identified as workers.

These factors include:
A. Size: “In most OECD countries, there are simply too many teachers for high status to be automatically accorded in the public mind”
B. Educational qualification levels: These levels are higher than ever before, and yet the professional status is low. This paradox has created great disruptions among teachers who feel frustrated by their low status despite the fact that their preparation is similar to that of many other professionals who have a much higher status.
C. Feminisation: “The rewards and status of teachers decline, it is commonly asserted, in direct proportion to the growing number and predominant place of women among their ranks”. Of course it is almost impossible to establish a causal relationship, and yet this finding has significant implications. For example, in France, a campaign created to boost the image of the teaching profession chose only men to be portrayed as teachers, as if to indicate that masculinity in a profession renders it more attractive.

Hoyle presents a helpful analysis of teaching based on five criteria used to define a ‘profession’.

These are:
I. social function,
II. knowledge,
III. practitioner autonomy,
IV. collective autonomy and
V. professional values.

Hoyle shows that, in fact, teaching does not match all the criteria necessary to be treated as a profession, as can be seen in the following paragraphs. From a social function point of view, teaching is of paramount importance to the well-being of society and of the individual, and thus receives the status of profession. On the other hand, in regard to knowledge, the knowledge base of a teacher is a cause for debate, as some emphasise content and others pedagogy. In order for teaching to be considered as a profession, the fact that this knowledge is crucial and can only be acquired through specific training and education must be commonly recognised.

However, if the assumption is that just about anyone can acquire this knowledge through experience, then teaching is no different from craft-oriented occupations (e.g. mechanics, gardening, etc.). Teacher educators in general have shown that practice does make a difference in the preparation of teachers, but only practice that is founded on theoretical models and reflective ideas. This is an important fact that needs to be disseminated as it is strong evidence supporting the importance of teacher professional-development programmes at any level of the system.

In regard to practitioner autonomy; teachers have little autonomy in their jobs, especially when compared to other professions such as medicine and law. Teachers’ autonomy can be, and usually is, limited by the state, administrators and principals, local communities, etc. In countries where teachers have more autonomy to define their jobs and their practices (such as in France, the UK and the USA), they are able to perceive their job as a profession. This is not the case in countries where teachers have very little or no autonomy (such as Venezuela, Paraguay, Pakistan). In these countries, principals, supervisors, inspectors and other administrators are constantly determining the role of teachers, constraining the communication between teachers and parents, and even dictating the content of day-to-day classroom activities. The state also regularises teachers’ activities by ordering teachers to follow a prescribed curriculum prepared by specific educators, known as ‘experts’, who are not teachers themselves. The professional development of teachers is unequivocally affected by the level of autonomy granted in the profession.

In regard to collective autonomy, “teaching has been less successful than the major professions achieving self-governing status and independence from the state. In perhaps the majority of countries, teachers are state employees expected to carry out the educational policies laid down by the central government. The degree to which the organised profession is consulted in the shaping of these policies varies over countries and over time”. In most countries, teachers are more likely to be organised into unions rather than into professional organisations, and this, of course, has an effect on the perception of teaching as a profession.’ In addition, during the late 1990s in many countries, the state has been gaining increasingly more control over teaching practices and the preparation of teachers, as can be seen in the number of countries that are now asking teachers to complete state tests in order to be certified (UK, USA etc.), and in the number of countries where the curricula of teacher preparation programmes are dictated by the state (as is the case in most African and Latin American countries).

Finally, in regard to professional values, it is very hard to identify any particular set of values in the teaching profession comparable to those common in professions such as medicine and law. In most professions, professional values can be derived by making the professional accountable to the client. Yet, this is nearly impossible to do with regard to teachers, as they have a multitude of clients. Also, in many professions there is a code of ethics that guides the practices of these professionals. Only a few countries have developed a code of ethics for teachers.

Given these criteria, it is clear to see why it is so often argued whether or not teaching is a profession, and whether or not teachers can do anything to improve their status in society. Yet, as previously discussed, most people agree that the professionalisation of teachers is pre-requisite to the successful improvement of the quality of education and is, thus, of great interest to policy-makers and educators. Fortunately, the tendency over the last few years has been to begin to accept teaching as a profession and, consequently, the transformation from teacher-training to teacher professional development.

What kind of professionals? Clinicians, researchers, educators?

Even when most of the literature nowadays is focusing on the perception of teachers as professionals, there is still some disagreement as to what kind of professionals they are. In the conception of teachers as clinicians, teaching is regarded as a process of problem solving and decision-making similar to the processes followed by physicians. Usually this body of research has led to studies of the processes that teachers follow when planning their work, and of their thinking processes while in the classroom. One of the main tributaries to this metaphor is the keen interest educators take in understanding the process that medical students follow in their training to become physicians, and their idea that teachers must follow a similar process. Studies inspired by this metaphor have focused on how teachers make judgements and decisions about particular cases and difficult situations, and also on their typical classroom practices and what kind of variables they pay attention to during lessons). Teacher-education programmes and professional- development programmes inspired by this metaphor have focused on developing teachers’ knowledge (of children, the curriculum, teaching strategies, school facilities and educational objectives) and of particular skills. These skills will allow teachers to construct learning activities that can be implemented within the classroom that will allow them to help each student, both individually and in a group context, and that will give them the necessary tools to make informed decisions in their practice. Other researchers in this field have focused on the differences between novice and expert teachers, particularly in the way that they plan and reflect on their work. This research has had an impact on teacher preparation and professional development, as educators have been trying to find means by which the knowledge and skills of the experienced teachers can become more accessible to the novice; ways in which teachers (both pre-service and in service) can develop the skills and abilities necessary to be reflective practitioners; and the ways in which schools can be organised to provide time and space for teachers to be able to analyse their reflections and improve their practices as a result. These concerns have had an impact on the professional development of teachers, particularly as it relates to in-service development both for the novice and for the mentor teacher, who can then achieve a higher level of professionalism.

Teachers have also been considered as researchers. According to Hollingsworth, “teacher researchers are concerned simultaneously with (a) ways to improve their practices, (b) change the situations in which they work, and (c) understand their practices within the larger society”. The idea of regarding teachers as researchers was popularised by the curriculum reform movement in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and was soon accepted in the USA. At the end of the twentieth century, learning about and developing the necessary skills and knowledge to complete teacher research is considered an important factor in the professionalisation of teachers and the improvement of teaching standards. This is not the case in USA only, but in other countries as well, although it is still not a widespread notion. Action research is certainly gaining acceptance in classrooms and is approximating the status of teachers to the status of other educators and professionals as they do now generate knowledge. This will be discussed in more detail in the section on models, as action research has been presented as a model of professional development.

It should be noted, however, that the recognition of teachers as researchers is not supported by all educators. In fact, Goodson has said that the conceptualisation of teachers as researchers has initiated a detailed examination of pedagogical practice while neglecting any reflection on teachers’ lives as professionals.

In summary, while it is accepted that good teaching reflects artistry as much as technique, the fact remains that there is little that policy can do to develop artistry. Regarding teachers as workers limits our view of the kind of educational opportunities that can encourage the development of teachers and the kind of education that they need to cater to the multiple demands of preparing the younger generations to live as contributing members of society. The language of ‘teacher training’ (as opposed to teacher education or teacher preparation) is the inevitable companion of the ‘teacher-worker’ metaphor. These metaphors are inadequate to meet the new demands which teachers are facing, the demands to make high levels of learning accessible to a diverse student body, the demands to create school learning organisations that recognise the above is critical more than ever right now.

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  1. I have experience

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