Applying for a mortgage, I was asked to categorise my occupation: professional, skilled or unskilled.  “Professional,” I said, but teaching wasn’t in the sub-categories, so notwithstanding my pride in my vocation, skill and effort, I was relegated to ‘skilled labour.’*

It’s a small slight, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Having dinner with family friends a while ago, teachers’ temerity in striking came up: but then, what self-respecting professional would do such a thing?**

Why would I care whether I’m seen as a professional?

I began blogging without an agenda; if I were to identify a single underlying theme however, it might be teacher professionalism.  Events like TLT and ResearchED reinforced my belief teachers should be trusted to lead their own development.  Attempts to teach better rested on my freedom to experiment, whether demonstrating the relevance of topics, increasing retention or introducing redrafting.  The choices I made were founded on acquiring professional knowledge – employing research, increasing pedagogical content knowledge – or behaving more professionally – for example, trying to be more reliable.  I’ve criticised school practices which undermine teachers’ professionalism: cheating, disproportionate teacher responsibility and a focus that distracts us from measures that matter.  In the same vein, writing up our Ofsted inspection and obtaining my observation notes was an attempt to respond professionally to a deprofessionalising experience.  Likewise, I’ve articulated a desire that teachers be treated with respect: managing their own time,  their wellbeing valued, learning from older and younger colleagues (as well as doctors).  In sum, my vision of my role as a teacher is bound up in the belief that I am a professional.

Yet within this, I’ve never articulated my vision of professionalism and why it matters.  Current debate over the College of Teaching encouraged me to resurrect and revise these posts, first drafted over a year ago.  Accepting that “every time someone compares the medical and teaching professions a fairy dies” (a Michael Fordham gem) I’ve tried to avoid simplistically arguing: ‘we should have X because the Finns/doctors/Singaporeans do,’ although I’ve referred to other nations to illustrate some points.  I’d also stress how provisional these ideas are (I have a horrible feeling I’m missing key points).

What is a profession?

A vocation or calling, esp. one that involves some branch of advanced learning.”

Teaching is usually seen as a vocation (more so than law, or engineering) and, at its best, it combines craft knowledge with advanced learning in cognitive science, psychology and subject pedagogy.  But this definition seems narrow, so I’ve turned to a synthesis by Millerson, quoted by Robert Runte:

  1. skill based on abstract knowledge
  2. provision for training and education, usually associated with a university
  3. certification based on competency testing
  4. formal organisation
  5. adherence to a code of conduct
  6. altruistic service.

In Britain, the quality and depth of all these could be questioned, but I’d argued only number four is missing, a gap the new college could fill.  Runte argues professional status is a dead letter – doctors and solicitors now work for hospitals or law firms.  I disagree.  To explain why, I’ll begin by suggesting what teacher professionalism might look like, then, in Parts II and III, consider why it matters and how it might be achieved.

Teacher of geometry, from Adelard of Bath's translation of Euclid's Elements
Teacher of geometry, from Adelard of Bath’s translation of Euclid’s Elements

What would a teaching ‘profession’ look like?

1) Teacher autonomy: key decisions about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment should be made by teachers.

I don’t mean every teacher should begin from scratch.  Designing schools anew is fascinating and stimulating, as I learned running a department in a new school.  But I’m unconvinced it’s desirable, or even possible, for every teacher or middle leader to do all the reading, thinking and designing needed to build an effective classroom.

What I’d like to see, instead is decisions made by teachers, devolved to the lowest appropriate level.  Matt Bromley makes a helpful distinction between collective and individual responsibility: most decisions about history teaching should be made by history teachers (as a body), not history teachers as as individuals.  So, for example, the curriculum should be decided nationally, perhaps under the auspices of the Historical Association, with serving teachers in the majority (compare the list of those designing the new primary performance descriptors).  Similar bodies, combining representativeness with expertise, could formulate policies and guides to teaching students with particular needs, approaches to formative assessment and working with teaching assistants, for example.  This guidance should provide teachers with the tools to do their job well, and a basis on which to build.  Curricula and assessments are more likely to work for students when they are designed by professionals (in history, in speech and language therapy) who will have to implement them, than by politicians, senior leaders or popular academics.

This would give teachers all the tools they need to do their job well.  Beyond this, teachers would be free to adapt the guidelines, provided they can justify their decisions, modifying them to meet the needs of their students and schools, and developing them as they pursue particular areas of expertise.

2) Better teaching: autonomy is contingent on being trusted, and allowed, to do the job well.

All teachers can improve.  They must be given the resources, autonomy and responsibility to make doing so their core concern.  A worthwhile Performance Management system, focusing on teacher improvement but avoiding simplistic test-based metrics and a direct link to pay (so overcoming the temptation to game the system) would be an important step towards this.  I’ve never seen a school Performance Management system I’ve liked, but we could perhaps learn from Singapore.

I’m not suggesting a free-for-all: at times, some schools will need to limit teacher autonomy and credible disciplinary procedures are important.  Maintaining autonomy, support and respect for teachers, while retaining a system with teeth is a huge challenge; but one which Finland suggests may be possible.  Having a system designed by teachers would go a long way to help, but quite what an inspection would look like under this system I’m not yet sure.

3) Teachers will be responsible for their autonomy, their quality and their improvement


This is implied in the points above, but is worth emphasising.  Professionalism requires teachers dedicate themselves to making it work.  The autonomy of the past isn’t coming back – nor, by almost every account I’ve heard, from teachers and pupils alike, should it.

Teacher autonomy is not just a chance to get rid of the (over-bearing) pressure and ease up completely.  It is a chance for teachers to play a greater role in leading and improving their profession.  It’s not impossible (see, again, Finland).

I don’t just want to be recategorised by the bank, I want the same from school leaders, government and society.  I don’t just want an easier ride on the mortgage application, I want a substantial improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

In Part II, I’ll explore why professionalism would make a difference; in Part III, how we might move towards it.

* Hopefully it’s clear that I object to how teachers are categorised and have every respect for skilled labour(ers).

** This was before the lawyers’ strikes of 2014 over legal aid.

Image credit: Ape Lad, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My understanding of professionalism abroad draws heavily on Lucy Crehan’s excellent Inside Classrooms project, which I’d recommend to anyone.