September 22, 2007

“Superintendent [Ed] Larimer had made it known that he expected teachers to always dress, when they went out in public, as if they expected to see a student. School district rumor had it that Ed Larimer wore a tie even while mowing his lawn.”

Broulliete, 1996

If you search the archive on the “Staffroom” on TES (which is probably the widest read UK teacher’s forum on the internet) you can find the following among the archives:

“Your search for “profesional” found 103 posts.

Your search for “proffesional” found 116 posts.

Your search for “proffessional” found 189 posts.”

However, what concerns me far more than the ability of teachers on the internet to spell the word “professional” is the extent to which teachers generally do not know the meaning of the word. Time and again teachers seem to think that the words means something along the lines of “not revealing to the children what you really think”. Sometimes that is extended to include how you treat colleagues and students as well (usually not insulting the former and not sleeping with the latter).

However, the actual concept is a bit more complicated than that:

“Whilst different analyses of the idea of a profession are to be found in the literature, it should serve our purposes here to focus upon five commonly cited criteria of professionalism, according to which: (i) professions provide an important public service; (ii) they involve a theoretically as well as practically grounded expertise; (iii) they have a distinct ethical dimension which calls for expression in a code of practice; (iv) they require organisation and regulation for purposes of recruitment and discipline; and (v) professional practitioners require a high degree of individual autonomy – independence of judgement – for effective practice.”

Carr, 2000

Some of this does raise the question as to what extent teachers are professionals. The extent of our autonomy is often questioned in an era where there both curriculum and assessment are prescribed, and the General Teaching Councils which regulate teaching are relatively new and largely unrespected. However, it is fair to say that teachers (even those who teach geography) are generally regarded as an important public service. However, we do still exercise autonomy in how we teach if not what we teach (at least when we aren’t being observed) and a professional body without the respect of the profession it regulate is still a professional body.

Do teachers have “a theoretically as well as practically grounded expertise”? My answer to this is to to suggest that they should do. It is at this point that I start to fear, not that teaching isn’t a profession, but that it is ceasing to be one. We are moving into an era where teaching is an option for the less able graduate. It’s easy to say that this is because of teachers’ pay. However, while teaching is a low paid option for a maths or physics graduate, it is well enough paid to be financially rewarding for a graduate in many other disciplines. The problem is not so much that the academically able can easily find better paid jobs, but that you no longer need to be academically able to do the job. In some respects the pay may actually be too high, for the teachers with a third class degree in media studies teaching may actually be the best paid option and they will stay in teaching even as their more gifted colleagues call it a day. There is a process of “survival of the thickest” as the relentless grind of the job drives out the most able leaving only those with nowhere else to go.

Moreover, schools increasingly have an anti-academic culture. There is no status or prestige in teaching for having impressive qualifications in your subject area, the philosophy is very much that it is how you teach that counts rather than what you teach. Having a PhD and teaching A-level physics or Latin is no more worthy of esteem than having a pass degree and teaching media studies or PE. There is, of course, a wide range of theoretical and practical teaching knowledge outside of subject knowledge. However, here too there is a constant pressure to dumb down. Teachers may be encouraged to understand theoretical knowledge around “Assessment for Learning” or “Multiple Intelligences” but it isn’t by reading books on the subject by academics and theorists. Teachers are taught their specialist knowledge on INSET days by people with no qualifications in the subject other than having attended an INSET day or training course themselves. Misconceptions are presented as facts and the knowledge actually imparted is usually close to worthless. Practical knowledge is also devalued. Experienced classroom practitioners are often seen as dinosaurs (resorting as they do to outdated techniques such as teaching the kids) while ex-teachers with a Powerpoint presentation working as Local Authority consultants describe how to make sure your lessons are “interactive”, “exciting” and “suitable for a wide range of learning styles”.

If we conclude that the jury (and the future) will reveal whether or not teachers still have any specialist knowledge, then we can move on to the question of ethical practice. Here we have a greater problem. Teaching is no longer an ethical profession. Partly this is because there is no shame involved in managers being dishonest, lazy bullies. But it is also found in the attitudes of teachers themselves. Teachers believe that they have no responsibility to be ethical. Yes, they might be obliged to keep the fact they are a drug-addicted, paedophile Nazi out of the classroom, but as soon as the school day ends their moral responsibilities end. Teachers view themselves as oppressed if they are expected to refrain from sleeping in the gutter, starring in pornography or campaigning for the extermination of Jews and Gypsies. After all it’s only a job, and as long as they aren’t at work at the time and it isn’t actually illegal then it’s their own business.

The quote that started this post comes from the US and describes the standards set in a particular school district in the 1950s. I mention it as one extreme, so as to suggest that where we are now, with teachers resisting the very notion that they might be expected even to be seen to be of good character is another extreme rather than the normal state of affairs. The other aspects of professionalism are in many ways out of the control of teachers and depend on the institutions that run education. However, the position of teachers as professionals who can be trusted with the exercise of ethical judgement is entirely in the hands of the teachers themselves. I hope that as teachers we can prove we are morally responsible professionals. Even if some among us can’t even spell the word.


Brouillette, Liane. A Geology of School Reform, SUNY, 1996

Carr, David. Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching , Routledge, 2000


  1. I’m trying to maintain my amateur status to compete in the teaching olympics.

  2. “Teachers believe that they have no responsibility to be ethical.”

    Does this only apply to teachers, or does it apply to members of professions such as law or dentistry? Does it, in fact, apply to almost everybody? I suspect so.

    I don’t see why a teacher should have responsibility to be ethical any more than anyone else – is this what you are arguing? I would say that everyone has a responsibility to be ethical in the first place; whether teacher or not.

  3. “I don’t see why a teacher should have responsibility to be ethical any more than anyone else – is this what you are arguing?”

    I’m arguing that there is such a thing as “professional ethics” – a set of values that reflect the trust placed in a profession.

  4. I quite like the ancient Greek idea that paying teachers is a bad idea. Then they can be co-opted by the state, who pays them, and used to fill kids’ head with ideology and so on.

    The ancient Greeks generally disliked schoolteachers, so I’ve read.

  5. And the difference between then and now is……..?
    Or have you never been called upon to “deliver” PHSE?

  6. […] years ago, I wrote about professionalism and ranted about how teaching seemed to have lost, or be losing, many of the distinguishing […]

  7. […] previous 2 posts (here and here) relate to teaching. I have discussed professionalism in teaching before but my views have changed somewhat since […]

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