Professionalism Defined

Redefining Professionalism

When Dennis Rodman played basketball, body piercing and obscure antics included, he qualified as the consummate professional. Qualified, that is, by the secular definition of professionalism. He was good at what he did and got paid big bucks for his endeavors.

Doesn’t get simpler than that, does it?

The oldest profession aside, the historically classical professions would certainly have excluded Mr. Rodman and his potpourri of tantrums and tattoos. Doctors, lawyers and clergy were those careers afforded professional status as our divergent society began developing.

At some point in time the teaching profession was at least nominally added to that austere list.

In the early days of teacher unionization the battle became divided along professional versus labor lines as the NEA and AFL-CIO clanged swords over who controlled various aspects of teacher power. The old-guard of teachers cringed to think that many younger teachers were willing to align themselves with truck drivers and coal miners in order to achieve better working conditions, more political influence and higher salaries.

That battle seems to have leveled out a bit, mainly since the NEA has become more union-like, yet still retains the more politically correct designation of an association.

A more insidious foe lurks, not quietly, but almost greedily waiting to destroy any remnants of true professionalism. That foe didn’t always exist, and can be traced in its formation to the actual lessening of classical professionalism as the new-professionalism of status and power emerged from the clash of dueling unions.

The onset of unionism in the early 1960’s followed by the ejection of God from the public schools in the same era correspond rather ominously with the precipitous decline of SAT scores and the emergence of Johnny and Judy who couldn’t even read the studies which documented how poorly they were being educated.

Currently we live in the age of standardized tests, state and national STANDARDS, and other supposedly quantifiable instruments supposedly designed to determine student achievement. Teaching to the test and covering one’s exposed posterior (professionally speaking, of course) seem to be the emerging order of the day.

Where are we headed?

New teachers enter the profession highly motivated to teach Johnny to read, even if double digit numbers are still a bit vague. They enter highly motivated, but unfortunately, an unacceptably large number leave after minimal time in the profession, frustrated with a system that promotes the antithesis of good learning.

There is no panacea for this plight. We’ve dug an engulfing pit of societal confusion in which blame is passed, fingers pointed and responsibility abdicated.

Although there is no panacea, there might be a meager step taken in the proper direction if we regain, or perhaps acquire, a proper perspective on true professionalism. Then, if individual administrators and teachers act on this true professionalism, they will become better educators, and (surprise! surprise!) their students will actually become better learners.

This won’t happen quickly; not nearly as fast as society would like. If it takes twenty years, a full generation of teachers, we will have accomplished the task assigned to us.

There are other factors that need addressing

  • parenting
  • student responsibility
  • school funding
  • societal mores
  • spiritual issues
  • environmental issues

My intent in this book is to focus solely on the attitudes, philosophies and actions of individual teachers and administrators as we corporately acquire the proper perspective on professionalism. Once we understand true professionalism we will naturally get on with the production of Higher Order Learning in our students.

My orthopedic doctor friend defines a true professional as one who possess a skill or has knowledge not possessed by the general population and is capable of being a purveyor of that crucial information or skill.

The true professional has an intense desire and obligation to dispense this unique information or skill.

The easy way out!

In September of 1963 I attended my first faculty meeting as a full-on teacher.

Even as a rookie I was frustratingly perplexed as forty-five teachers debated for at least half an hour about whether to have chicken or steak at the fall teachers’ picnic. Driving home that night I posed serious questions to myself about the nature of the profession I was entering.

A few years later, in another school, I listened equally perplexed as an administrator labeled one of the best teachers in the district as unprofessional.

This administrator gave that harsh indictment because the teacher had worn hiking boots and jeans to school that day.

Similar conversations became the norm, and being professional almost always involved easily identifiable characteristics such as clothing, handing in properly done reports on time, being on time to meetings and putting pictures on bulletin boards.

Rarely, if ever, did an administrator or teacher discuss professionalism within the context of enthusing and motivating students towards effective learning.

Keeping classroom behavior acceptable and minimizing parental discontent seemed to be the benchmark of philosophical professionalism desired by most administrators.

Knowing there is something above and beyond hiking boots and being on time to meetings as the definition of professionalism has haunted me throughout my career. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to verbalize the concepts that have been coalescing in my mind.

I admit it’s impossible to quantify the philosophical, yet I will take the creative liberty of categorizing what I believe are five levels of true professionalism in the world of teaching.