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Professionalism in teaching

Professionalism in teaching

A Search of Teacher Professionalism. A personal reflection through the Lenses of a Traditional, Conflict Theory, Neo Liberal and Critical Perspective.

In a recent Guardian Secret teacher article (2015) one school leader explains how they feel lost, set adrift, since the last update to the Ofsted inspection guidance.

“I used to think I knew the rules for inspections – I built my career on it.”

Is this a reflection of the teaching profession today? Have teachers been re-professionalised under the scrutiny of performativity as put forward by Ball (2003). I aim to consider these ideas looking at the role of the professional with particular emphasis on my own feelings of professionalism.

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I joined the teaching profession to make a difference or that is certainly how it felt. My decision to become a teacher was built upon a desire to influence the life chances of young people. But having entered the profession with seemingly noble intentions what sort of profession have I joined? What sort of professional have I become?

The nature of professionalism has been subject to much scholarly debate. It has even been suggested (Whitty, 2000) that a profession is whatever society thinks it is and therefore this could mean we have to consider professionalism in a personal context. In order to discuss the concept of professionalism I first need to attempt to define the term ‘professionalism’ for myself. The terms professional and professionalism mean different things to different people.

Through my readings around professionalism there appear to be four main structures with which to consider the concept of professionalism. I will examine each of these stances and reflect on my own sense of professionalism through these lenses. Ultimately attempting to consider each perspectives utility for my own practice.

Traditional

Traditional views of professionalism are largely based on occupations like medicine and law (Demirkasimoglu, 2010). These professions have high status and pay but also high levels of autonomy. For this reason occupations like teaching are traditionally accepted as quasi professional in that ‘Bureaucratic control….fills the need for coordination by limiting the semiprofessional’s discretion or autonomy’ (Leiter, 1981 pp225)

There are many aspects of teaching that I believe correlate with the traditional view of a professional. Teachers provide a public service, require expert knowledge and skills, and are driven by a moral imperative. I would align myself with these principles and therefore to some extent with the view that teaching is a traditional profession and that I myself am a professional from a traditional perspective. Teaching as an occupation does however differ from traditional professions. Teachers are subject to more organisational control than both lawyers and doctors and although the responsibility of education is vast it could be argued that it is not as large as those of liberty and health.

When considering my own sense of professionalism from a traditional perspective, I also question if there is a further distinction between modern teaching and the traditional view of professionalism.

Traditional professions afford a significant amount of distance between the client and the practitioner. Within teaching, due to the regular interaction between client and practitioner and the nature of the relationships that are formed this metaphorical distance is not so extensive. This idea leads me to consider the changes that may have occurred to teacher professionalism as the role of teacher has altered over the past century. Teachers are expected to be more than imparters of knowledge and as the emphasis on their role has shifted so too has the potential for teachers to be considered alongside doctors and lawyers as traditional professionals. From a personal perspective I find it hard to align my own feelings of professionalism with the traditional view that would separate teaching as a high status profession from other occupations. As much of a teachers work is conducted through direct client interaction and the relationship that is formed is an essential part of successful practice, much like nurses and social workers, this consigns teaching to remain quasi professional and for me to not consider myself a teacher in the fully traditional sense.

Conflict Theory

Another view point on the nature of the professional can be gained from Conflict Theory. Conflict Theory originates from Marxist thought. Macdonald (1995) suggests that from a Marxist standpoint it is not the knowledge that makes a professional high status but the value of this knowledge to the capitalist system. Therefore the professionals maintain structures in society by ensuring that positions are monopolised. Conflict Theory proposes that the social relationships of differing groups are built upon power and exploitation. Thus it is suggested that in effect the education system is organised to ensure that power is exercised and different groups within society exploited.

Ozga (1987) defines teacher professionalism as a form of state control with teachers being subject to ‘direct’ or ‘indirect rule’ by the state as political, economic, social and cultural circumstances determined. This suggests that the state is using professionalism as a means to gain desired outcomes.

“When we hear from all sides the demand for an introduction of regular curricula and special examinations the reason behind it is, of course, not a suddenly awakened ‘thirst for knowledge’ but the desire for restricting the supply of these positions and their monopolization by the owners of educational certificates”

(Weber, cited in Gerth and Wright Mills 1946, pp 242)

Analysing the arguments made by conflict theory about the role of professionals in society fills me with personal disquiet and apprehension. Conflict Theory suggests a role of the professional that significantly differs from my own feelings of morality, integrity and service. I believe that I entered the teaching profession to be of value. I see the role of a teacher as potentially immense in individual lives. Teachers have the opportunity to develop the academic ability and achievement of their students but also to have influence on their development as people. To suggest that part of the role of professionals, and therefore teachers, is to ensure that groups within society are restricted and that the structure of society maintained is, for me, and I would suggest many others within teaching, unpalatable.

This does not however mean that this is an incorrect standpoint. It would be hard to argue that the teachers professionalism has been used by the state to manipulate the profession into certain modes of behaviour. The teachers standards (2011) indeed define the behaviour and attitudes which set the required standard for conduct throughout a teacher’s career.

I find it difficult to square this particular circle. I see no problem with the statements made within the Teachers Standards but there still remains a discordancy between this view of an imposed professionalism and my own feelings of myself as a professional. Whatever the larger political structures that we live and work under this does not mean we have to fulfil the role suggested.

Evans (2008) sees professionalism more as a sum of individuals ‘professionality orientation’. The plural of how a group of individuals perceive their own professionalism. Professionalism is co constructed by the actions and beliefs on individuals who make up the profession. I believe strongly in the role of teachers to break norms in society and enable those that are less fortunate to succeed. Conflict Theory may suggest that systems would make this difficult however I do not feel that this in any way defines myself as a professional. Conflict Theory suggests a view of teachers as an occupational group with a professionalism defined by the state. Is the individual sense of ‘professionality orientation’ as outlined by Evans not a better measure of an individual’s professionalism? Or as Gewirtz stated

“.. teachers are not the passive dupes of classical Marxism, unwittingly co-opted as agents of the state: they are active agents resisting state control strategies and forcing their employers to refine and rework those strategies.” (Gewirtz, cited in Hextall et al 2007, pp39)

Considering all of the points above I do not feel that the conclusions from Conflict Theory help to define an individual teacher as a professional. I certainly do not feel that they help to define me as a professional. A sense of professionalism seems more personal than that which can be provided by broad statements defined by the state.

Neo-Liberal

We live in an age of high levels of external accountability. Ofsted, School league tables, the National Curriculum and performance related pay are just some of the high stake measures which have been introduced over the past thirty years.

Gewirtz (2002) argues that the restructuring of the education system has been part of the dismantling of welfarism whilst introducing managerialist forms of control and increased centralisation. This is seen as part of a Neo-Liberal approach to create competition and markets where previously there were none. This Neo-Liberal agenda has significantly shifted the role of the professional.

“The preferred strategy of the neo-liberal marketisers has been deregulation of the profession..” (Gleeson & Husbands, 2001, pp287)

Dale (1989) describes a shift in the mode of state regulation of teacher professionalism. Regulation has altered professionalism from a licenced form of autonomy to a more tightly controlled ‘regulated’ autonomy. These views do not agree with assumptions that teachers have been moving towards a professional status parallel to that which has been attained by the traditional professions of Medicine and Law.

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The march of the Neo-Liberal agenda has resulted in a ‘struggle over the teachers sole’ (Ball 2003 pp 217). Ball suggests that the introduction of such performativity has led to an erosion of the traditional professional values, a shift in professional identity and the meaning of ‘professional’ for teachers. This has led to the emergence of a new kind of professional with differing professional values.

I can identify with some of the ‘new professional’ values that Ball (2003) identifies. The increased levels of performativity have altered the way the profession as a whole behaves and I think individual views of their own professionalism. I can identify with some of the traits Ball attributes to the new managers.

‘Thus the work of the manager, the new hero of educational reform, involves instilling the attitude and culture within which workers feel themselves accountable and at the same time committed or personally invested in the organisation’ (Ball, 2003, pp219)

Whilst recognising the negative spin that Ball is placing on this role I also would suggest that the new managers have helped improve the education system thought accountability and investment measures. I do see these attributes as part of my own professional identify.

However Ball continues by suggesting that part of the manager role is to create a docile (and capable) workforce. I do not see this as something that is part of my professional identify. I feel that we should be developing teachers who are able to question and drive the profession forward. Who have ‘extended professionality‘ (Hoyle, 1975, pp 318), an ability to have a much wider view of what education involves.

Whilst Ball is strongly questioning the use of performativity and the values of the new professionalism that has arisen from its use I find that some, but not all, of these values do align with my own feelings of professionalism.

Critical Perspectives.

More recent perspectives on professionalism suggest that we might rethink professionalism to be about how we do what we do, rather than an acquired status. Whitty (2008) moves beyond the notion of educational reforms being used to de-professionalise teachers but instead for these to be an attempt at re-professionalisation. There is acknowledgement that educational reform has brought about changes in professionalism but that this may be constructing a new type of professional potentially more appropriate to contemporary needs.

Hargreaves (2000) identified four ages of professionalism: the pre-professional age, the age of the autonomous professional, the age of the collegial professional and post-professional or postmodern. The fourth age, post-professional or postmodern, which Hargreaves believes the profession is moving into (or has already entered) is characterised by a struggle between groups or forces which are trying to de-professionalise the work of teaching and groups or forces who are trying to redefine teacher professionalism.

‘One possible outcome of these processes is a new, postmodern professionalism that is broader, more flexible and more democratically inclusive of groups outside teaching and their concerns than its predecessors.’ (Hargreaves, 2000, pp167).

These are some of the attributes that would be clear in postmodern professionalism.

Whitty (2008) categorises the teachers into two distinct groups. The ‘new entrepreneurs’ and the ‘old collectivists’. Both Whitty and Hargreaves are suggesting we are at time of change in teacher professionalism. But unlike the ‘new managers’ defined by Ball (2003) the new entrepreneurs who have embraced the changing educational agenda have gained more potential status and rewards, including broader training opportunities and a limited degree of autonomy. So rather than managing the line of performativity the new entrepreneurs have the opportunity to help re define teacher postmodern professionalism.

It does feel that the work of teachers has altered even within my own professional life. I would suggest that the critical perspective lens allows for potentially the greatest reflection into my own thoughts of professionalism. As previously mentioned I can identify with some of the traits Ball (2003) attributes to the new managers. When these professional attributes are considered from a critical perspective lens I begin to feel that I can form some stronger opinions as to my own professional identity.

The traditional professional has some features that are in common with my own professional identify. However, the client-professional relationship that is formed within the work of teachers leads me to believe that I cannot align my own professionalism with these traditional beliefs. Whist Conflict Theory and a Neo-Liberal analysis allow us to consider the role that the state has, and is, playing on teacher professionalism I do feel that that the role the state is playing defines me as a professional.

Evans (2008) proposes that professionalism is not something that is an idealised concept. Professionalism has to be something that people actually ‘do’ not something that government or any other agency thrusts upon them. Therefore professionalism has a very personal context. I believe that I hold some of the professional attributes that would be associated with the new managers described by Ball (2003) and the ‘new entrepreneurs’ described by Whitty (2008). I believe that systems of accountability and investment within the organisation are part of my own feeling of professionalism. These are about increasing teacher performance but for the benefit of the young people who have one chance of succeeding within the education system. However I also feel that there are areas of my own professionality that are not discussed in these roles. The concept of ‘extended professionality‘ (Hoyle, 1975) is something that is deep within my own feelings of professionalism . It is a teachers duty to continually improve, to value the underlying pedagogy, to have a much wider view of what education involves and to adopt generally a more critical approach to the job. (Evans, 2008). Hence, I would suggest that I am potentially a new professional, one who has accepted the changes of performativity but trying to see the benefits such performativity can bring as well as ensuring that the main focus does not stray from what is best for the young people in our care.

Bibliography

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Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228

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