Teachers supervised workers or professionals

Sunday voices: Thomas A. Regelski

From its earlier years a tension has existed between whether teachers are professionals or supervised workers. Much ink has been spilled over the criteria of a profession. Certainly specialized knowledge is one requirement. But professions are careers to which a person is called, for more aspirations than earnings: serving people is the reward. (An enthusiastic student teacher once said, “I can’t believe they actually pay people to do this.”)

So-called “helping professions” (nursing, teaching,) are distinguished from professionals who directly charge for their services, and charges reflect specialization and training. The helping professions are institutionalized; pay is by negotiated contracts. Unlike direct-pay professionals, teachers and nurses cannot “build” successful careers that can then charge more for their specialized services (e.g., brain surgeon). Pay scales premised on seniority lead to a hierarchy where older teachers are assumed to be better and teaching older students earns the highest status. Teachers thus have the shortest careers of any profession: about five years. Survivors are not necessarily better. Tenure based on a few observations by building principals safeguards them.

Back in the 1960s, tensions erupted over whether teachers’ interests should be represented by local associations, a professional organization (National Education Association; NEA), or by unions (American Federation of Teachers; AFT). Many teachers preferred to be professionals rather than supervised workers, but gradually most teachers joined a union and even the NEA became a union with local affiliates.

Aside from specialized training, teaching has some degree of autonomy within a range of qualifications, apprenticeship (student teaching), and state regulated licensing (certification). To be a sociologist’s “ideal typical” profession (e.g., medicine), teaching should have a professional code of ethics, but these often don’t go beyond common sense criteria. The “do no harm” ethic of professional malpractice that guides medicine considers ethical standards of prudent care not standardized practices. Any two teachers of a subject (or surgeons) will have idiosyncratic approaches. However, teaching has no provision for malpractice by which teachers can be removed for lack of due care–perhaps except for intimacy with students. It also lacks provisions by which peers can review the professional prudence of others, as in medical malpractice law suits.

The “practice” in professional “malpractice” is a translation of the Greek term “praxis”; the ethical requirement to be careful. Violations of this care-full prudence are malpraxis and result in the loss of professional rights and status. The criteria of successful praxis are “good results” for “clients” (students in this case), given the differences between people (8 years-old vs. 80 years-old) and the conditions: rural, suburban, city. Teaching often suffers from a lack of this criterion for care since more time goes into the “what” and “how” to teach and not enough to the “how well.” “What” to teach (or not–sexual education, religion, patriotism, history revisionism, etc.) involves the public as adversaries, but results get ignored. Proposals to link teacher’s merit to test scores attempted to address this, but mistakenly assumed that anything worth learning can be adequately assessed by tests.

A continuing problem with teachers’ unions is the typical adversarial relations that develop between the school administration and teacher unions. Administrators affect teachers’ autonomy by imposing one-size-fits-all programs for classroom management and curriculum. Imposition of major scheduling practices, such as block scheduling, disturbed key aspects of many teachers’ pedagogy. Music teachers in an Erie county district were criticized by some fellow union members for teaching during their free periods (preparing students for auditions, solos, etc.). The music teachers thus got involved in union politics so that in the next contract “free period” meant time free for the teacher to use as professionally chosen.

One downstate superintendent had a large number of applicants for a chemistry teacher. He required that they take a previous NYS Regents exam in chemistry. Only three didn’t withdraw their applications! Thus critics complain about the “dumbing-down” of teaching, meaning lack of training in the subject taught. In Finland a four-year degree in, say, just mathematics is followed by a two year degree in educational studies. It shows on OECD international comparison (PISA) tests: 2018, Finland # 8 in math, US. # 23. And complaints of “de-professionalizing” teaching apply to administrators who dictate this or that prescriptive program for curriculum or classroom management for teachers to follow (“production line teaching”) thus taking both the “what” and “how” from teachers’ hands. There is also a vast Internet industry of teachers selling lesson plans to other teachers who can’t or won’t plan for themselves as professionals and need such “canned” lessons.

Probably the best criterion of professionalism in teaching is attitude; a professional disposition that cares for students more than subject matter taught, and regularly works around typical challenges (class size, schedules, administrators, other faculty, etc.) to enable good results for students. Such teachers don’t teach to protect their subject from students, but to increase students’ functional competence in the subject. Everyone remembers at least one such professional teacher who cared, and maybe too many guilty of factory-line malpraxis.

Thomas A. Regelski is an emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to tom.regelski@helsinki.fi.