Is teaching a profession?

I think that most teachers assume that being a professional means that we should have a certain level of autonomy. We close the classroom door and make our own decisions about how best to serve the needs of the students in front of us. Yet I don’t think that this is how other professions necessarily operate. If I went to the doctor with a nasty rash then I would expect to get the same standard treatment, regardless of who that doctor is. I would expect a lawyer to use a standard approach to applying for a court order or an engineer to use standard principles in order to design a bridge.

Perhaps this is what sets teaching apart. Perhaps it is simply different to other professions in this way. After all, attempts at standardising teaching practices can be terrible. Think of Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, patrolling the country enforcing group work and limiting teacher talk. We don’t want this. And the standard of evidence in education is different even to that in medicine. It is harder to be certain that a particular approach is the right one.

However, there are a couple of problems with this argument. Firstly, are we comfortable that a child in Mrs Black’s class could get a very different experience to a child in Mr Brown’s class, even if it’s the classroom next door? At least on some dimensions, one of the classrooms is likely to be better. Is this fair? And if we argue that teachers should make their own decisions then does this not imply a kind of Darwinian logic to policymakers?: Teachers may choose their methods and then we may reward the ones who get the best results and punish or demote the ones that don’t.

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programs use scripted lessons. I don’t claim that this is true but let’s just imagine that there was overwhelming evidence that students in such programs outperformed their peers who were taught using different methods and let’s assume that there are no negative consequences, such as a loss in motivation or a lowering of self-esteem. Would we all start to use these programs? I think that the answer is a resounding, “No.”

The reason for my confidence is that we have the same situation already in the form of systematic synthetic phonics. The evidence is compelling that this is the best approach to teaching early reading (see here, here and here) and yet the model that is still promoted is a ‘mixed’ or ‘balanced’ approach that de-emphasises the importance of phonics and that may include the use of multiple cues, a strategy that is potentially harmful. Misconceptions about phonics abound e.g. that it is about single letter-to-sound correspondences or that English is mostly non-decodable.

Oddly, the fact that teaching practice is so vaguely defined seems to support a whole industry built around telling teachers what to do, from education schools to consultants to purveyors of edtech and so on. The recent attempt at creating a “College of Teaching” in England demonstrates the problem well. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the organisers that the college should be all about classroom teachers and the sentiment has been returned in the form of monumental indifference. With days to go in their fundraising appeal, they have only raised £20,000 of the £250,000 that they said that they needed in order go ahead. How much of this £20,000 comes from actual teachers is unclear and they now seem to have shifted the goalposts to 1000 donors rather than £250,000.

Contrast this with the overwhelming success of teacher-led, grassroots movements such as researchED, Northern Rocks, WomenEd, teachmeets or the many online forums, chats and blogs that are transforming the ways that teachers see themselves in the UK and around the world. Much of this is fueled by teachers taking charge of the agenda and taking a critical stance towards what the experts proclaim. It is a welcome development that Scotland now makes educational research freely available to teachers. It’s odd to contemplate that this is not standard practice and we should be arguing for such access everywhere else.

If teaching is a profession then it is certainly not the same kind of profession as medicine. I am not sure that it can be but I am growing more certain that it will be up to us to define what teaching is in the future.

Display of eurythmics by students of the Queensland Teachers Training College 21 April 1937

Display of eurythmics by students of the Queensland Teachers Training College 21 April 1937


23 thoughts on “Is teaching a profession?

  1. There is no feedback system in teaching, or rather the wrong feedback. In Medicine, if you get the diagnosis wrong, the patient dies. If enough die, people start asking questions and you get struck off. If your business doesn’t make a profit by treating the customer right, it quickly closes down and you go bankrupt. Instant negative feedback that affects you personally. In teaching the feedback isn’t exam results, it’s whether or not you’re teaching the “right” way.
    I’m still old enough to remember when the SATs came in and suddenly the Primary teachers all dumped their hippy, dippy crap and started teaching properly. What was most disgusting with this was that they’d known all along that their method of teaching was inferior, but, they didn’t care as long as they were ‘just’ screwing up little kids education. They only started to care when it started to affect them personally.

    • Tara Houle says:

      Hi Larry, in some regions, there are systems in place to determine if teaching is effective, but teacher unions are firmly against them. I live in British Columbia, Canada, where every year kids in Gr.4,7&10 (9, 12 and 15 year olds) have to participate in the FSA’s: Foundation Skills Assessment. It’s a basic level of assessment, which is supposed to measure if teachers are actually teaching the curriculum to the students. Predictably, the teachers union here regularly comes out in the media, claiming how these exams cause undue anxiety in children and how the exam itself is not an accurate predictor about how the kids are doing. They do everything they can to discourage parents from allowing their children to participate in these assessments. As a parent, I can assure you that I fully support the FSA’s. And the overwhelming majority of parents concur. These assessments are far from perfect, however we do need a system which holds teachers accountable. They no longer have regular provincial exams in this province in their last year of high school (only for maths in Gr.10, and a few others in Gr.12), so without any other formal measure of accountability, the only assurance parents have about how the system is working, are the results of the FSA’s. They do not count for a final grade per se for students, but their results are ranked, and the rankings are also used to rank schools throughout the province.

      Unfortunately this has not slowed the progression of inquiry, constructivist methodologies teachers use at the primary level. And BC has now implemented an open ended, wishy washy, poorly written curriculum, which is similar in design to what was used in the UK back in 2007. So these issues are making it even harder for any meaningful learning to occur at the primary level and beyond. I fear that unless parents launch a massive lawsuit against our Ed Ministry for failing to provide a basic education for their kids, the progress of dumbing down the next generation will be able to barrel full steam ahead.

      • I agree with your assertions wholeheartedly Tara, with one exception. The FSAs are not curriculum based. They are skills based. They should be used as a diagnostic tool for teachers, schools, and districts, but unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. Since the advent of the Fraser Institute (a right-wing think tank), the results have been used instead to rank schools. This has lead to controversy and backlash from BC teachers and the BC teachers’ union.

        Having said that, I tried to lobby the BCTF (BC teachers’ union) to call for the return of the standardized provincial exams for grade 12 academic subjects to no avail. This was extremely disappointing for my colleagues and me. The exams were curriculum based and included a detailed report to schools (after the exams were marked) that teachers could use to measure how they were doing. I welcomed it and it made me a better teacher.

        I feel for teachers coming into the profession now. Not only do the not have this very informative tool to help them to determine the level/depth of material, they now will have a curriculum that is vague and they will have been brainwashed into thinking that grades, knowledge, and direct instruction are bad.

  2. Helen says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with your analogy re: the doctor’s visit. If I go to the doctor with an ear infection, he/ she will likely prescribe penicillin since that’s what the medical manual says to do. But I’m allergic to penicillin, so the doctor has to rethink/adapt the standard prescription to something that suits me better. I believe this is identical to the act of teaching. I might decide to teach about the American revolution by having students read a chapter from a text book. But for some kids, this is not enough for them to “get it.” I might then decide to supplement the learning with a timeline or a video clip. In this regard, I believe that teaching is a profession like any other.

    • If you are allergic to penicillin then the alternative is well defined. I suspect that doctors would tend to agree on what this’s literature is. I don’t think it is like this in teaching. Much variation is justified on the basis of differences between students, but sometimes these differences are spurious – as in the case of learning styles – and often it is not clear why a particular difference between students should lead to the strategies proposed.

  3. I find that a lot of conversations about T&L in my staffroom go like this:

    T: We should do more investigations and inquiry instead of direct instruction.
    Me: No, the experimental evidence suggests that this would be less effective.
    T: But that can’t be right; surely we’ve all felt how effective it is when kids discover something for themselves. Are you saying that my idea is wrong? How dare you!

    My point being that most teachers are used to having speculative debates about what might/should work, based on looking at their own experience through the lens of a shared set of assumptions (e.g. discovery always leads to deeper understanding) and don’t really get what objective evidence means. Even in my M.Ed, RCT-type evidence was not seen as being any better than critical practitioner reflection. Which takes us down the path of confirmation bias and educational homeopathy.

    Another problem is that teachers tend to overly ‘own’ their strategies. They feel that identifying fault with a teaching strategy is the same as identifying fault with the teacher as a human being. As a lot of teachers feel this way and understand their colleagues do also, discussions tend to just be about agreeing with each other. That’s probably why so many people are surprised and shocked when they post something on a blog and then see someone disagree with it. (Disagreeing with other people about things they believe is just such typical Angry White Male behaviour 😀 )

    My impression is that the same problems were true of doctors in times past, who refused to wash their hands between seeing patients, but their profession has evolved beyond this. It’s hard to see any sign that education is about to do the same, though.

  4. Greg,

    On a different plane, a teacher is the only professional that I know of without an office or a private workspace (even if it’s part of an open office). (S)he has relatively little downtime to try out and test new things while at work. If a doctor, lawyer, academic comes across a new programme or app, then (s)he can experiment with it on a break, on a day where business is slow, etcetera. A teacher doen’t have that ‘luxury’. (S)he is required to spend much time outside of office hours doing things that are necessary for what goes on during office hours. In other words, the teacher is the only professional without a professional workspace to be a professional.
    Also, in many countries – for example The Netherlands – there are different routes to becoming a teacher so the basis qualifications of thwo teachers can differ quite a bit. Finaly, unlike a doctor who must update her/his competences and knowledge regularly, a teacher often doesn’t. Thee is, for example, no law in The Netherlands requiring continuing education to maintain a license.

    • stan says:

      Are you sure your view of the relative amount of free paid time for doctors, lawyers and teachers is realistic? It is certainly doesn’t match my understanding for Ontario Canada.
      Also I don’t think lawyers and doctors start their careers each with a nice wood paneled office in which to spend their slow days reflecting.

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  7. My view is no, we are not professionals in the sense of doctors, lawyers etc – the traditional professions. One reason I say this is that we are not self-regulating or self-governing with a professional body like the AMA or the Bar/Law Societies etc.

    The second reason is that professionals always have an ethical obligation to put the interest of their clients before their personal interests or the interests of the organisation that employs them. However, this is not the case with teachers. If we take students as our “clients” very often we make decisions that are not in the best interest of the students but are in the best interests of the School.

    For instance, at my school we are forbidden to write reference letters for students that may wish to leave to attend another school – even though it may be my (professional!) opinion that a different school would be best for a student. So it might be good for the school not to lose numbers, and we are directed to act in the interest of the school, not the child. This may seem a trivial example but I’m sure any practising teacher could recite many examples where this is the case.

    If a doctor or lawyer acted in a manner contrary to the best interests of their clients they would be disciplined by their professional body. If I was being a smart-arse I would say that for teachers it is a prerequisite for promotion.

    • Brian says:

      “If a doctor or lawyer acted in a manner contrary to the best interests of their clients they would be disciplined by their professional body.”

      Which planet do you live on. This is just a daft thing to say. They have an obligation in theory.

      Education is I think a realm in which professionalism has a place.

      You dont need a doctor to put a plaster on a minor graze. You dont need an accountant to check your change when you buy a newspaper and give the guy a £5 note. You dont need a lawyer to tell you that setting fire to your neighbours house is illegal and will get you into trouble.

      Much of what a teacher does may be done equally well by and amateur, but not all. This leads to the realm of the professional.

  8. “I think that most teachers assume that being a professional means that we should have a certain level of autonomy. We close the classroom door and make our own decisions about how best to serve the needs of the students in front of us.”
    Yes – I think this is part of the problem currently facing teaching. But only part of it.
    At risk of sounding a bit Spiderman-y, I think that if the autonomy of the classroom is a defining characteristic of being a professional, then it has to be coupled with an expectation to engage with the wider community as a responsible professional. Without that, one can’t be surprised if teachers are subjected to intrusive managerialism to check their behaviour and performance.
    Unfortunately, I think there is a low-level but quite widespread malaise amongst teachers, which is rooted in a lack of professional confidence and pride. Over the last few years I have sat quietly in staffrooms & INSET sessions in schools around the country and listened to how teachers talk about their work, and read a lot of comments on social media and blogs. I say this to make clear that this is not just a ‘funny feeling in my toe’, but also to admit that this view is not exactly grounded in rigorous research.
    This phenomenon is exemplified by your comments on synthetic phonics. I don’t know much of anything about this issue, so won’t comment on its effectiveness in teaching reading, but I think it’s an example of how *some* teachers, when faced with cases like this which conflict with their OWN DIRECT EXPERIENCE, or how they have taught in the past, throw up endless denials or simply refuse to engage. Sometimes refusing to recognise the value of ANY evidence, research or even the notion of education itself as an academic discipline. I find this attitude (which I call the ‘village atheist’ position) both disheartening and frightening – it speaks of a teacher operating without any professional hinterland, willingly and purposefully degrading the practice of teaching from a profession to a trade, and inviting the sort of managerialism mentioned above that we all love not at all.
    Then, this punitive sort of oversight of course depresses teachers’ confidence in their professional agency still further, feeding a malign cycle of defensiveness and ‘why-bother’ culture – in *some* schools, I should emphasise.
    This is not, therefore, a criticism of those teachers that I have heard and read – but rather of the constraining systems which limit, or at least put so many obstacles in the way, of high-quality professional practice. Now, I’m not in charge of the country (thankfully) and I don’t have all the answers. But I’d offer one idea which might have a chance to make a difference – to achieve the coveted ‘outstanding’ status, Ofsted requires schools to demonstrate long-term & meaningful collaboration with other schools for the purpose of developing their teachers’ professional practice and skills, and how the impact of this collaboration on pupils’ learning has been evaluated.
    They may as well use their powers for good, after all.

  9. I don’t think teaching is that different from other professions in the way you describe. In any profession, there are standards, but there are also people who go above and beyond, and others who barely hit them. I can go to two doctors or two lawyers right next to each other and get very different results. That’s why people suggest getting a second opinion if you’ve been told something life-altering by a professional. I think where we get very clear, standard treatment is in very straight-forward problems with simple solutions. Ask 5 doctors what do do with an infected cut, and you’ll get a standard answer. Ask 5 doctors how best to treat depression, and you’ll get the gamut from exercise more to take these drugs.

    Regarding Vellem’s comment above, I can’t imagine doing anything against the best interests of our clients. We’re often reminded that whatever is in the student’s best interest is what matters most at the end of the day. I would hope their’s is an isolated case.

    With teaching, the curriculum sets the standard, but the approach is what you’re discussing here – how we impart information. That’s more analogous to different doctors using a different surgical techniques. Both their patients live, but they each might have different side effects. Say one approach works best for 80% of the people. The problem is, it’s impossible to know which 80% of clients will benefit from it and which are in the minority that actually benefit from the alternative surgical method. So it is with teaching. We have an idea of what works with the bulk of the kids, but sometimes we hit on something that works incredibly well with some on the edges. Then we stick with it, even if the majority isn’t as well-served. Or we do the opposite. Either way, even if we know what works for most, we can’t always tell what will work for whom. Just like going in for surgery, it’s always a bit of a gamble.

    So I believe it’s vital to have a variety of teaching styles since our clientele are so varied. We need to all be a little bit different in our approach in hopes that somehow all our kids find a connection in the building and the learning approach that works best for them. Being varied doesn’t make us any less professional. The worst case is a student stuck with a teacher that just doesn’t fit with them. But it’s no less difficult, in my parts, trying to get in to see a different doctor. Most specialists have at least a six month waiting period. So the student has to bide time and hope for a better fit the next year, which is an unfortunate reality.

    BUT, I think the reason we don’t use the most effective approaches is because most teacher don’t actually know the research. We are bombarded with gurus who have a variety of questionable methods we’re to follow (gaming,no failing grades, etc.) that seem, to me, to go against studies in the field. We’re so busy trying to figure out how to implement strategies we know don’t work we don’t have time to learn about what actually does. In this respect, we’re not a profession because we don’t have the autonomy to teach the way we think is best.

  10. David says:

    I feel that we are actually at a crossroads. Teaching has been a profession of artists–we do what we do because we face the nexus of content, skills, and developing human beings in front of us every day. As has been written elsewhere, there’s a lot of alchemy and magic that happens in the classroom.

    Think how these three aspects have changed over the past 50 years! In my field of history, we certainly teach different content than was offered in the 1950s, as post-modernism, feminism, the social studies movement, etc. all influenced the content we were expected to present. The skills issue has perhaps changed less than some would understand, but certainly there has been some movement (ie, teaching cursive is now out the window, more’s the pity). FInally,look at the changes in the psychology field over the past 50 years….and how psychology and neuroscience are finding their way into the educational research in ways that we have not seen before.

    It’s actually an interesting time to be teacher. Now, if they would only slow down the ed tech “disruption” baloney…

  11. Tunya Audain says:

    Something Nasty In Teaching Reading

    The withholding of proven standard practice, in my view, is criminal and should be open to suing for malpractice. In the medical profession this is possible, but not in education. It’s also unethical.

    There is something very perverse if not pathological for people in the human service of education to deny assistance or to willfully use teaching methods that harm some of their clients. I am referring to the willful resistance to the use of phonics approaches to teach reading. The evidence is overwhelming in favor of phonics over whole-language (and related) approaches. Whole-language is outlawed in Germany.

    I’ve read how in some cases teachers feel phonics is beneath them or that it is “old-fashioned”. And, of course, there are many arguments against “scripted lessons”, “rote learning” and “drill and kill” that go way back to Dewey who called it a perversion in 1898.

    About the issue of put-downs or staff room peer pressure here is a quote about how a prominent author was treated. Marilyn Jager Adams in her forward to Jeanne Chall’s book, The Academic Achievement Challenge (2002 edition) said:

    “ . . . reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues . . . Sadly, however, as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it. Chall was treated most shabbily . . . “

    This may be the one aspect of this problem that is not being addressed in moving toward evidence-based practice — respect. There should be respect for the practitioner (Who wants a disdainful professional?) and respect for the student (who deserves the best life chance possible from proven reading procedures).

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  13. Dylan Wiliam says:

    We can define what it means to be a profession in many ways. In particular, we can insist on certain features like a shared body of knowledge, governance by a community of one’s peers, and so on that ensure that only medicine and a few other vocations are regarded as professions. At the other extreme, we can cast the net wider, so that teaching and nursing are included, but then defining what is, and is not, a profession becomes more difficult. I incline to the latter view not least because it seems to me that this is closest to how the term is actually used in normal language. If we do this, it seems to me that we cannot go very much further than a profession as having two key characteristics:

    1) The job involves decision-making under uncertainty. If you have all the information you need, and don’t need to exercise judgement, you are technician, not a professional.

    2) The job involves an acceptance that your decisions can and will be scrutinized by a body of your peers, who may render a judgement that your actions were unprofessional (i.e., outside the accepted limits of a particular community of practice).

    The other point that is worth emphasizing whenever we talk about teaching and other professions is that most professions focus on issues of negligence rather than incompetence. Doctors and lawyers are struck off for doing this that are wrong, rather than not being very good. Doctors and lawyers are hardly ever struck off for just not being very good.

    Moreover, the negligence has to be really bad to merit sanction, partly because the medical evidence is rarely as clear cut as people like to claim, and partly because even when the medical evidence is clear, as soon as we get involved with dealing with human beings, things get very messy. In a recent survey almost half of UK general practitioners sampled admitted to prescribing antibiotics for viral infections, in full knowledge that this would have no effect (and as well as wasting money, would increase problems of antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Are half of our doctors unprofessional, or are they just doing what they can in impossible circumstances? I just don’t know.

    • I think there is a space to inhabit prior to striking professionals off for incompetence. For instance, hospitals regularly conduct morbidity and mortality reviews. This is not to blame doctors but to attempt to learn from what has happened. Similarly, when a plane crashes, questions are asked about competence but it is also possible that the pilot followed best practice and that this needs to be reviewed. It is interesting that you alight on the example of GPs overprescribing because I suspect that this is an area of medicine that generates the least feedback. Who monitors this? Where’s the data?

      There are two problems with teaching and neither of them are a lack of data. We don’t need solid gold randomised controlled trials to make inferences in schools about the effectiveness of a strategy, especially if we are seeking to learn rather than blame. But I don’t think we agree on what morbidity or crashing the planes looks like and I think we use the concept of professionalism as an excuse not to learn.

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