The Unprofessionalisables.

I suppose it’s just yet another Holy Grail to hope that the teaching profession in Britain might ever reach a steady state. I remember my former head teacher saying in the early nineties that henceforth the only constant would be change. Maybe that has always been true, and the perception that there were (and are) steady states is just an illusion. Change probably is endemic.

But one is still entitled to wonder where it all gets us. While the physical world marches to its own rhythm, change in social constructs such as education is a more controllable matter. And we might wonder whether the fundamental need that people have for cognitive development has really changed so much that the constant upheaval is justified.

I came to the conclusion that most change in professional circles is really about people’s perceptions of what they are doing – and about power-play: who is in charge and whose world-view takes precedence. It is not much about delivering the basic service at all. Recent trends have only bulwarked the authority of those at the top of the greasy pole, and made it all worse.

The problem with teaching is that nobody really knows – let alone can agree – on what it is and what it is for. That, despite the essentially simple process of spending time with children and exposing them to things they have yet to encounter.

High amongst the confusions come the ceaseless calls to improve the ‘professionalism’ of the profession. Nobody seems to know what that means either; it is just more empty words. For school managers (and perhaps their political bosses) it probably means a workforce that does whatever it is asked with maximum effort and minimum dispute. Which might be fine, if what was being asked was both uncontentious and sustainable – but it is neither.

Then there is the view (which managers mostly seem to hate), that professionalism is about the ability to operate autonomously, within a set of guiding ethics, and still achieve largely good outcomes (although those outcomes themselves are not beyond question). This seems to me a much more viable model, especially in a field as nebulous as education, but it means allowing people more latitude than the current gate-keepers are willing to grant. It also means accepting the inherent uncertainty of the process, something that those being held to account are understandably reluctant to do, no matter how little they can really change it.

Attempts have been made to impose order and standards on the profession by the establishment of various bodies. But their legitimacy is questionable when they are not composed – voluntarily – of the majority of the grass-roots individuals that they purport to represent. So I am far from convinced that it is possible to increase professionalism simply by imposing structures: in the final reckoning, professionalism is a state of mind, and only the owners of said minds can really control it.

Here we return to the dichotomy mentioned earlier: should the professional state of mind be one of compliance with institutionalised norms (laid down by whom?) or should it rather be a state of independence to follow one’s conscience and experience – albeit probably within a general ethical framework? Until such matters are resolved, it is unlikely than any greater semblance of professionalism will be achieved.

In the case of other professions, one might  observe that status is indeed conferred by membership of august bodies – though they are usually controlled by their members rather than outside agencies. But this form of institutionalism is no guarantee of professional behaviour either – only a recognition of it (or not, as when people are struck off).

Here we come to perhaps the most uncomfortable point of all, for those arguing for a grass-roots definition of professionalism: there is simply no shared understanding of what it means. I can think of very many individuals over the years who, while technically competent, exhibited all manner of behaviours and attitudes that I found professionally questionable. Perhaps they thought the same about me. What are we to make of the Advanced Skills Teacher who was found to be having a relationship with a student? And there were many lesser manifestations of individual attitude that I certainly did not agree with.

Then there is what one perceives as one’s own responsibilities. In my view, a professional should have a degree of ‘benign remove’ from his or her clients (and employers) so as to retain the necessary detachment from partisan interests. How else can ethics be upheld? But I was regarded as old and pompous by the teachers who seemed to perceive themselves more as children’s buddies and life coaches (or management lackeys), things that I found verged on the puerile and professionally compromised.

It seems that attempts to engage with the mainstream teaching body as a profession is stymied by one simple fact: many of those concerned simply aren’t interested. What they want is to have fun with children; or failing that, to drill exam statistics out of them (which is not at all the same thing, but not much better). Or more charitably, just to do their job.

Unlike the researchers, whose interest most often strikes me as nerdishly academic, or the managers whose interest most often strikes me as blindly corporatist, ordinary teachers most often have only a vague sense of belonging to a discrete profession, let alone one that has any sense of dignity. They are more interested in something to get them through the next lesson than the underlying philosophy or psychology of what they are doing. And the short-sighted technocracy which now passes for teaching standards is only making it worse.

That is not meant as harshly as it probably reads: I do have sympathy with those who just want a simple life, though that should not excuse them from identifying and maintaining appropriately high standards. From recent conversations with long-retired teachers, it probably  always was the case, and was not necessarily a bad thing, in that it gave them an authenticity with their pupils. My sadness is that few will discover that bothering to find those underpinnings actually gives such an outlook more sense. (That’s what TonicforTeachers is about…)

Much of the lack of interest is also due to simple time pressure. Full-time teachers are just too overloaded to have much left for the niceties of what they are doing, let alone membership of professional colleges: that is for those who are already looking for ways to escape. Neither is climbing the management ladder (which seems to be the sole reason many suddenly find interest in meta-educational matters) for everyone.

But we are still left with the same dilemma: those who want to apply ‘standards’ don’t understand that imposition is actually the last way to succeed – while those responsible for the day-to-day upholding of said standards seem to have little conception or concern for what that might mean, beyond its simplistically being “all for the children” (which is something else I’ve questioned before now…).

I can hardly be the only person who has attempted to square this circle unilaterally, by self-equipping with the philosophical background that was otherwise conspicuously lacking. In my opinion that is the only way it can be done which is why, in certain other countries, teachers are expected to have higher degrees, even doctorates, before they can teach.

I tried hard to develop my own strain of professionalism in my work: in this blog, in my book and in my contributions to CPD. My approach (though categorically not the content) was sometimes criticised for being over-academic; for my part, I could not see why mature adults should not be able to raise their own outlook above the ‘fun and group-work’ that they deliver to their pupils. We do not need to conduct professional discourse in the manner of Year Nines.

Yet it was my approach that was (supposedly) found wanting in the end; my determination to retain high professional and intellectual standards was apparently not pupil- (or data-) friendly enough – even though the same school was exhorting its teachers to deliver high academic standards. There was a personal dilemma all of its own in there: I found insight that I am certain enhanced my own professionalism – only for it to be ignored, and ultimately rejected, by a blinkered establishment. I can only assume that the individuals concerned either could not see the contradictions in that, or had no real idea what they were talking about.

What kind of professionalism is that?

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