Letter from a Professional Part 3: Teaching and Professionalism

October 27, 2013

In this post I will consider how the points from the previous 2 posts (here and here) relate to teaching. I have discussed professionalism in teaching before but my views have changed somewhat since then.

The extent to which teaching counts as a profession is something that is a source of some controversy. However, it tends to focus on professional qualifications and how the profession is regulated and not on professional ethics.

Recent controversy has centred on the freedoms given to free schools to hire teachers without QTS status. That controversy tends to centre on a central unresolved dilemma in education, namely the relative importance to teaching of subject knowledge and knowledge of teaching. Teachers do have professional qualifications, i.e. those that grant QTS status. However these are often short courses, mainly assessed in the workplace, without a clear body of professional knowledge to be learnt and no objective assessment of knowledge. The academic part of these qualifications is often of particularly low quality even in top universities. For a lot of secondary teachers it is the degree in their subject that is their true qualification, and their professional qualification was simply an opportunity to practise. This leaves primary teachers and those who don’t have a degree in the subject they teach (sometimes simply because the school subject e.g. ICT, P.E., R.E., design doesn’t easily map onto any particular degree level subject) in a strange situation. The only qualification that establishes their ability to teach is not valued by many of those who hold it. Personally, I think it right that teachers should require a teaching qualification, but a lot more thought needs to go into what teachers should know, and how they should be assessed in order to make that meaningful.

As for regulating the profession, the GTC was (rightly) unpopular and was (rightly) abolished. There is talk of setting up a Royal College of Teachers to do some similar tasks. Ultimately, however, a regulator can have no credibility when there is no agreed standard to which teachers should be held. For some in education teaching is about liking kids and making them happy by organising activities; for some it is about being a subject expert and being able to explain that subject to others. While there may be some agreement over what is completely beyond the pale there is little agreement over what the difference is between a competent and incompetent teacher. Once a professional body has decided where it stands on what a teacher should be doing, how can those who disagree have any confidence in that body? It seems like no professional body could gain the confidence of the whole profession.

However, it is in the area of professional ethics where teaching seems to differ most from other professions at the moment. A couple of the values listed here are familiar to teachers. We do have a concept of confidentiality. It’s not always terribly well-developed which is why anonymous blogging raises issues, but there is certainly a strong idea that certain information, particularly about students, should not be made public. I think there is some concept of professional behaviour, although it is often remarkable controversial. Without a strong sense of professional identity, I do think a lot of teachers see no reason why their own personal behaviour outside of school should be of concern to their employers or the rest of the profession and don’t appreciate that we all have an interest in establishing that teachers are trustworthy and responsible individuals.

I would argue that the concept of integrity is not promoted in teaching. I can think of no examples of explicit pressure to be honest. Anecdotally, I can think of countless examples where teachers boasted of their dishonesty, whether it’s threatening students with punishments which couldn’t be given, fixing school council elections or just fobbing off concerned parents or students.

As for objectivity, it was this, and in particular the concept of professional scepticism which got me started on this dialogue. With the possible exception of some attempts at moderating work, and the occasional warning not to have favourites among students, there is very talk of objectivity in teaching. Professional scepticism is a completely alien concept to me.

Far from being encouraged as professionals to seek the truth, teachers are, if anything, considered unprofessional for pointing out the truth. Don’t mention that the behaviour policy isn’t followed. Don’t point out that the last initiative didn’t work. Don’t observe that the new initiative is the same as the last one. Don’t tell the people running INSET what the research actually says. Don’t bother making reports or student data too accurate. Don’t use data to discover genuine problems. The truth is an inconvenience and exposing it is a negative act that can only limit one’s career opportunities. In teaching it is the duty of the professional to make sure parents, students and inspectors are kept in blissful ignorance.

For this reason a lot of the concepts related to independence are unfamiliar to me in the professional context. While there may be some idea of professional competence and due care it is not related to keeping up to date on relevant professional knowledge. Indeed, it is far more common for CPD to recycle decades old ideas under new names than to publicise new discoveries about learning or about one’s subject. Far from being discouraged to make judgements which could be affected by self-interest, teachers are repeatedly given perverse incentives to make inappropriate judgements. Whether that’s inflating grades, overlooking (or assisting with) cheating in coursework or hiding discipline problems, teachers are continually put in situations where their own interests are at odds with their professional judgement. Not only that, but there is no expectation that our own professionalism or professional ethics will prevent us from complying. Indeed, the phrase “play the game”, which roughly means “do want management want no matter how unreasonable or wrong” is a common piece of advice in teaching. In recent discussion of performance-related pay and performance management I was repeatedly told that teachers failed to comprehend that their job was to do whatever their managers wanted, but this is entirely at odds with the concept of professionalism, where professionals are expected to make their own judgements.

As for some of the next two aspects of professional ethics, self-review and advocacy are not avoided; they are encouraged. Indeed, far from making a professional judgement of the true interests of students we are expected to have a good personal relationship with them, and to make decisions according to whether it will make them happy or not. Intimidation of the sort described, i.e. threats of what will happen if we stand by our own judgements, is standard practice from managers and often from students. Bribery is less of an issue because there are’’t huge sums of money that can easily be siphoned off unless you are blatantly corrupt. However, there is no attempt to avoid the impression of personal interests. Teachers won’t refuse to make the decision to order a textbook because they helped write it. Managers won’t hesitate to provide opportunities for their friends (in or out of school) to make money. The murkiest area is that of consultancy services. It is entirely possible for people with powerful and responsible positions in education to sell advice to others as a private enterprise. The most blatantly disreputable example of this being those OFSTED inspectors being paid to advise schools on passing OFSTED inspections.

Too many of the issues raised by my accountant friend are simply not considered in teaching. There is little consideration of what the virtues of a teacher should be beyond compassion for students and a dedication to the job. Wider values are rarely spelt out, and routinely ignored. We are not, as a profession, expected to be committed to honesty, integrity, fairness, or even the value of the intellect. I have spelt out before the values which inform me as a teacher, but it is remarkably personal because there simply isn’t a shared professional ethos among teachers. To me, teacher professionalism is nowhere as developed as a concept as it is in other professions because there seem relatively few shared values among those who call themselves teachers.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. I can see what you are getting at but my experience is that there is a pretty well-established professional standard amongst teachers. To some extent this has been reinforced by the The Teachers’ Standards which, for example, require that:
    “Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school”.
    I can see that this is not very specific – there are some clarifications but for example no guidance on whether being seen vomiting into a gutter on Saturday night with one’s pants round one’s ankles is, or is not, acceptable. But I remain unconvinced that accountants have some higher path mapped out for them by dint of the professional standards laid out by their professional body. There is no doubt that teachers’ professionalism has been compromised (perhaps I mean put under pressure – one can hope) by the systematic and uncompromising requirement to produce results that has been driving targets, funding, and judgements on performance for the last decade or so, but it seems to be that the big issue is not related to ethics but the poor quality of CPD. If teachers in the UK ever get to grips with CPD in the way teachers in somewhere like Shanghai do, and if Ofsted were to become a useful external and independent review of schools rather than the high stakes bludgeon it is now, then I have high hopes that teaching would head back towards the highly respected profession it was and always should be, regardless of professional body, regulation, or ethics.

  3. ‘Professional scepticism is a completely alien concept to me.’

    I would have thought that if professional scepticism is defined as ‘not being trusting of individuals that a professional deals with and the information they provide’, then that precisely describes your attitude to most SMTs.

  4. Please get there/their right.

  5. Maybe I’m just showing my American side here, but I just can’t get over your suggestion that an accountant (an accountant?) can teach teachers about professionalism (honesty, integrity, self-regulation?) really? If we are trying to emulate that path, let me off now.

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