The Teaching Profession

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					The Teaching Profession?

        Given the theme of this issue, “On Developing a Professional Culture in Schools,” I
wondered What Would Socrates Ask? I imagine he‟d ask us to define “professional culture,”
which would entail defining “professional,” and hence “profession.” He‟d ask what we mean by
a profession, and expose our confusion about the subject, then lead us either to a satisfactory
definition or to an admission that we couldn‟t find one.
        From the advance description of the issue and some of the article drafts, I noticed that the
idea of professionalism seemed to center on growth and evaluation. As Socrates might have
pointed out, neither of these is intrinsically connected to the concepts of professionalism or
profession, except in the loose popular sense that professionals consistently do a good job, and
others do not. Salespeople, artisans, carpenters, and workers in just about every field can and do
grow, and should be and are evaluated. This does not make every job, however, a profession.
        What then, do we mean by the profession of teaching? We can proceed in two Socratic
ways: what is usually meant by the terms, and what experts say.
        Looking at the common view, it is hard to find anyone outside of teachers themselves
who think of teaching as a profession. Donald Schön‟s The Reflective Practitioner, though it has
had significant influence on educators‟ thinking and practice, denies teachers major professional
status: “The prototypes of professional expertise…are the „learned professions‟ of medicine and
law and, close behind these, business and engineering. These are, in Nathan Glazer‟s terms, the
„major‟ or „near-major‟ professions. They are distinct from such „minor‟ professions as social
work, education, divinity, and town planning.”
        Nor do Burton Bledstein‟s The Culture of Professionalism or Dan Lortie‟s Schoolteacher,
two other classics in the field, include teaching in the professions. In fact, Lortie, as we will see,
explains precisely why teachers are not perceived as professionals.
        I cite these authors because they have much to say on the subject, and because I have
found little after their work that takes up the topic as clearly. But, you might say, 30 or more
years have passed since they wrote. Surely a lot has changed?
        If so, it has not changed in a direction beneficial to teaching. As a gross measure, I
looked on Amazon for books including the word “profession” in their titles. Here are the results
of the first 100:

                              “Helping Professions”             21
                              Counseling/Psychology             16
                              Law                               14
                              Medicine                          12
                              Business/Accounting               9
                              Social Work                       6
                              Military                          4
                              Teaching                          4

Teaching is ahead of only a small cluster of pairs and singles including student services,
technical writing, and sign language interpretation. (“Helping professions” almost always refer
to the counseling/mental health/social work nexus, so the total for that cluster dwarfs all others.)
       In the eyes therefore of both academic experts and publishers, teaching is not a
profession. What then is a profession, and why aren‟t we included? Burton Bledstein is an
expert on the subject. According to Bledstein, writing in a historical context:

               “As commonly understood, a profession was a full time occupation
               in which a person earned the principal source of an income. During
               a fairly difficult and time-consuming process, a person mastered an
               esoteric but useful body of systematic knowledge, completed
               theoretical training before entering a practice or apprenticeship,
               and received a degree or license from a recognized institution. A
               professional person in the role of a practitioner insisted upon
               technical competence, superior skill, and a high quality of
               performance. Moreover, a professional embraced an ethic of
               service which taught that dedication to a client's interest took
               precedence over personal profit, when the two happened to come
               into conflict.”

Here we find a few key components:
   1. a full time occupation in which a person earned the principal source of an
   2. mastering “an esoteric but useful body of systematic knowledge” over
      significant time and with some effort
   3. theoretical training, practice or apprenticeship, and a degree or license
   4. technical competence, superior skill, high level of performance
   5. an ethic of service that puts “client‟s interests” ahead of personal profit

There‟s no denying 1and 5 apply to teaching. As mentioned, most of this issue
connects professionalism to #4.
         The problem comes with items 2 and 3. Do teachers have theoretical
training, and have they mastered “an esoteric but useful body of systematic
knowledge”? Dan Lortie pointedly states where teaching falls short in this area:
“it is presumed that the group [of professionals seeking recognition] possesses
collective knowledge not available to „laymen.‟ Yet teachers do not hold the
beliefs necessary to assume such responsibility; they do not claim to be common
partakers in a shared body of specialized knowledge or common contributors to
„the state-of-the-art.‟”
         Lortie also notes another characteristic of the professions not shared by
teachers: “Teachers have not gained the legal right to govern their daily work
affairs; they do not possess the explicit rights, for example, gained by professors
[or] physicians in hospitals.” Teachers are, as he puts it, “employed
subordinates.” He might also have pointed out that teachers lack the control of
entry, credentialing, and discipline that professional boards in medicine, bar
associations, tenure committees, and the like, hold as their prerogative Thus
college teaching is more likely to be considered a profession, and to rank in most
surveys of occupational prestige in the top five, among doctors, lawyers,
architects, stockbrokers, and bankers. (Teachers do not do as badly as is
sometimes claimed; they are in or near the top ten, but their nearest neighbors are
RNs and electricians.)
         So teaching appears to lack two elements of a profession: a distinct body
of knowledge, and collective authority over the work, and the latter is apparently
dependent on the former.
         Is there hope of changing either? In one sense, teacher autonomy is more
threatened than ever, especially in the public sector, with constant assaults on
teachers‟ unions and teacher tenure, increased external evaluation of teachers
through their students‟ high-stakes tests, and other governmental involvement,
from school boards to legislatures. (Imagine elected officials in Virginia or Texas
decreeing what should be taught from which textbooks in medical or law
         On the other, we are moving ever closer to the possibility that teaching can
be based on a body of specific knowledge, as research shows us what works. The
process by which teaching might become a true profession in this sense was
illustrated by the great Lewis Thomas in the first chapter of his book The
Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher. Thomas describes the stature of
medicine in the early part of the twentieth century through a survey of 1907,
1917, and 1927 Harvard Medical School graduates, who generally reported that
their incomes (a possible proxy for professional stature) were “respectable but
very modest” and who advised “Prepare to work hard, but don‟t expect to be
prosperous.” As Lewis explains, the vast difference between the status of doctors
in those days and in the 1980s when he was writing was due to the fact that
medical progress now allowed doctors to make an enormous difference in the
health of their patients.
         A second example comes from the world of special education, in which I
had the privilege of working for a brief time last year. Our knowledge of ADHD,
autism, dyslexia, and other such disabilities has grown so rapidly that schools can
now affect these children‟s lives in profound ways. In special needs schools,
teachers work constantly with doctors, counselors, social workers, and even
lawyers, making them part of a professional team. And although there is little
sign that such teachers are any better paid than mainstream educators, the fees that
can be charged by these schools and the successful entry into the field of for-
profit schools working side-by-side with not-for-profits make special ed appear
more like medicine in its organizational structure.
         This combination of collegiality and substantive knowledge about how to
effect change is at the heart of teaching‟s potential to become a true profession.
We are learning just as rapidly today about what works for “normal” minds as we
have for “special” learners, but this knowledge, with few exceptions, is not
making its way into classroom or faculty room practice. This is partly because, as
Alexis Wiggins points out in this issue (“Open Doors”), American educators still
work with far less collaboration than their counterparts in other countries. There
are as yet no definitive studies that examine the relationship between teacher
collaboration and student success, but the simple observation that collaboration
and high test scores are both East Asian hallmarks may point in a promising
        The thirst for collaboration and expert knowledge is growing among many
American teachers. The huge attendance of educators and clinicians at the
Learning & the Brain conferences, now held in major cities all across the country,
and the use of medical concepts like “grand rounds” by such programs as Schools
Attuned® and such noted education reformers as Harvard‟s Richard F. Elmore
may mark the beginning of a new age in teaching, and a true professionalism.
The Internet gives teachers for the first time the possibility of collaborating across
the country and of codifying their knowledge about pedagogy and curriculum for
universal use.
        There are of course, barriers to be overcome. First, as Socrates would tell
us, we need to concentrate on being true professionals, rather than on appearing as
such to others. Given the millions of teachers across the country, and the
structure of education, we probably can never hope to make teaching as
remunerative or prestigious as medicine or the law. But we can make strides if
we overcome two internal obstacles: a tradition of teaching as a solitary practice,
and a reluctance to take a more research-grounded approach. The latter was
epitomized for me many years ago in an independent school English department
meeting, where a teacher vehemently objected to the use of a pre- and post-test of
student writing performance. He angrily announced “If we in a humanities
discipline have to depend on data, I don‟t know what we‟re coming to.” Perhaps
we‟re coming into our own as a profession.

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