October 10, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: Is Teaching A Profession?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Steamed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Is Teaching A Profession?

Dear Bob:

I read a column the other day wherein the author was spouting the usual thoughtless rhetoric: teaching isn't a profession; anyone can teach; public schools are utter failures--you know the drill. We've heard it a hundred times, but it does raise an interesting question: is teaching a profession? Regardless of the answer, there is a related question: are teachers professionals?

As you know, I'm a "professional" singer. I have a degree in voice. I'm a composer, arranger and conductor. I'm classically trained and have more than four decades of experience. I sing every year with a fine symphony orchestra performing the works of the masters, and with a fine chorale that only last year debuted a new work and also performed the Mozart Requiem Mass in Dm at Lincoln Center in New York City. The promoters, people who regularly hear the finest choirs in the world, honestly said that ours was the most professional choral sound they heard in many years. I'm actually paid to sing for a church choir, which I gladly do every week. I'm paid to do solo work upon occasion. All this and more, still I'm not, in the strictest sense of the word, a professional.

It might be wise to provide some definitions. I'm sure you'll agree that most Americans have been misusing these words their entire lives:

Neophyte: A beginner.

Amateur: One who does it for love.

Professional: One who makes their living from it; one who performs at the highest levels of their profession.

Many years ago in college I was offered the opportunity to pursue a master's in voice. I auditioned for a famous teacher under whom I would study. They said: "a big voice; could be an important voice. I could have been granted a scholarship, studied under great teachers and had the life of the unquestionably professional singer, always on the road, living out of a suitcase, constantly singing and hoping the voice stayed healthy. I turned it down. It just wasn't that important to me, and most importantly, I wanted to remain married (the smartest decision I've ever made; you know my wife). Had I chosen otherwise, I would have been, unquestionably, a professional. I would be making my living from my efforts while performing at the highest levels of my profession.

As it turned out, that ancient decision was smarter than I could have imagined, for about five years later I started getting the chronic sinus infections that plague me to this day. I've learned to deal with them, but they would have made my voice far too unreliable to sustain a true professional career. I've never regretted that decision.

So what am I now? I'm not a neophyte—a beginner—but I'm certainly an amateur. I do it because I love it, because it nourishes my soul. Yet I'm also paid for my work each and every week, and on other occasions. I certainly don't make the majority of my living from music, but I do make a not-inconsiderable amount of money.

What are missing are the four primary qualities of a true profession:

(1) The profession requires substantial and lengthy education, preparation and practice.

(2) Those in the profession set the standards for admission to the profession.

(3) Those in the profession set their own compensation.

(4) Those in the profession regulate the profession.

As a teacher, I'm arguably more of a professional than I am as a musician, at least in some ways. I make most of my living in the pursuit of teaching, and if my evaluations are to be believed, I perform at the highest levels of my chosen profession. I occasionally receive a bit of minor recognition for my work, but I'll never be "teacher of the year." I'm not a ruthless self-promoter and I don’t do the kinds of extra-curricular public relations garnering things that spark such awards. I'm certainly not a neophyte, yet I am an amateur, for I love it madly.

It is in the qualities of the true profession that we are potentially found wanting. Teaching certainly requires substantial lengthy and ongoing education, preparation and practice, but teachers surely don't set the admission standards of their profession. We certainly don't set our own compensation, and we don't regulate our professions. All of this is done by legislators and administrators. I know that some might argue that unions do it all, but even in union states, legislators still have control. Wisconsin teacher's unions, to their chagrin, can confirm the truth of that assertion. We don't hire and we don't fire and we don't stand in judgment of our fellows. In many ways, plumbers are more professionals than we.

However, teaching transcends these definitions. Good teachers, teachers performing at the highest levels of their profession, can accomplish great things. They can inspire those who resist inspiration. They awaken possibilities in those who never before imagined them, and they make such imaginings possible. They introduce kids to their better, wiser selves and send them off in pursuit of who they might, with effort, one day be.

Most importantly, we convince kids of the necessity of learning how to be in the instant, of paying attention. That's a hard lesson, a lesson the wise work a lifetime to implement, never with absolute success, yet without its life-long pursuit, no accomplishment of value is possible.

we'll never make six-figure salaries, but that doesn't matter. As with music, I'm content to be an amateur performing at the highest levels of my profession. After all, how much more can any of us hope to achieve? I'm doing what I love, where I want to do it, and I make a living more than merely adequate to my needs. Knowing that I do make a real difference in the lives of others makes the fact that I'll never be rich—even by the miniscule standards of Barack Obama—of no consequence.

When the bell rings and I close the classroom door, I'll be smiling every day. Ultimately the kids know the difference between the pros and those who are merely phoning it in.

That's what really matters---isn't it?

By the way, do you have any idea when we're going to be getting some Scotch tape? I'm just about ready to ask kids for used gum to stick things on the walls.


Mr. English Teacher

Teaching certainly requires substantial lengthy and ongoing education, preparation and practice, such as returning to school or learning while working with online masters degree programs, but teachers surely don't set the admission standards of their profession.

Posted by MikeM at October 10, 2011 10:32 PM

Teaching *isn't* a profession, any more than journalism or writing are professions. They are trades.

A trade is something where you can pick up the rudiments of the job with six months preparation and perform at a reasonably productive level. A profession requires years of training before you can perform even adequately.

Another standard I use is that a career is a trade if an engaged and enthusiatic amateur can outperform a disengaged and unenthusiastic professional nine-tenths of the time. A career is a profession of a disengaged and unenthusiastic professional can outperform an engaged and enthusiatic amateur nine-tenths of the time.

By the second standard, education is clearly a trade. One has only to look at the success of the homeschool movement and compare the result to that produced by unmotivated and unenthusiastic educators in the public schools.

Medicine, Law, and Engineering are professions. You do not want an enthusiastic amateur conducting your heart operation, defending your liberty, or designing your bridges. Even a disengaged professional does a better job.

Education, like carpentry and machining, is a trade. The military turns out statisfactory instructors with six months training. I taught on the college level (as an adjunct) with no training, yet was regularly among the highest rated instructors in my department.

Classifying education as a trade is not to denigrate it. Like carpentry and machining it is a skilled trade, one that takes only a short time to gain competence, but can take a lifetime to gain mastery. But mastery is a matter of experience and individual effort. Those that stop striving lose their edge very quickly.

But education is a trade.

Posted by: Mark L at October 11, 2011 07:32 AM

Worse than claiming that teaching is a profession is claiming that it's a LEARNED profession. Yes, there are a lot of things covered in so-called "education" courses in schools of "education." However, most of them are trade-level rather than professional level. There are no theories of education, in the sense that science, mathematics, engineering, or law involve theories. Instead, "education" tends to involve fads that change every few years. Yes, we expect certain things from tradespeople: competence in their trade, integrity, honest advice. But we don't equate their practical skills with the knowledge required of a genuine learned profession.

Posted by: JoeFromSidney at October 11, 2011 04:11 PM

Mark L beat me to the profession vs trade distinction, but there is one more aspect to it -- professions almost always include a formal apprenticeship/journeyman period (law clerking, residency for physicians, experience requirements for engineering licensing, etc.)

Posted by: Phelps at October 11, 2011 05:58 PM

Well, so it seems that teaching is not a profession because, for one, no theory lies behind it? For starters, begin with Socrates. Then fast-forward to, oh, through a stone, John Dewey. That will deaden a few days. For fun, skip through the lunacy of Pedgagogy of the Oppressed (or Depressed, if you rise above the vegetable). Education takes second seat to none in the theory game. Oh, perhaps you mean "serious" theory, like "Queer Law" or "Critical Legal Theory" or "Lesbian Law Studies"? Or the legal theories that underpin affirmative action? Or the theory of the humours?

I am sure that you want an "enthusiastic amateur" teaching your son or daughter calculus, which, I know you know, requires but a scant seven days to master after successfully completing the 10th grade.

Seriously, societies that treat teachers as respected professionals have better education systems. I give you Japan and Finland. In America, where the Phelps and Marks snark at teachers, the system is troubled because, to a significant extent, the teacher has little authority or respect. Give "Mark's'" son an F, and he'll be down the poor pedagogue's throat by evening.

Posted by: Mr.Chips at October 12, 2011 12:03 AM

"I am sure that you want an "enthusiastic amateur" teaching your son or daughter calculus, which, I know you know, requires but a scant seven days to master after successfully completing the 10th grade."

As a matter of fact, an enthusiastic amateur -- my wife -- taught all three of my sons calculus. She has no college degree (stayed home to raise our sons), but did have some college.

How did it turn out?

Eldest son is a senior systems engineer at a major defense contractor, fast tracked to become a technical fellow.

Middle son (ten months out of college) is a task lead at major petroleum company involved in a pipeline engineering project.

Youngest son is in college at one of the best engineering universities in Texas majoring in mechanical engineering.

On the other hand, of my nieces and nephews, all of whom were taught by "professional educators" in the public school system, none have taken calculus (in either high school or college) and only two out of five have finished college -- and those in subjects like theater arts and anthropology. None of them have jobs paying much more than minimum wage.

The moral of the story is that you want your kids taught by "education professionals" rather than "enthusiastic amateurs" because my nieces and nephews, as the result of their superior education are going go through life supported by the labor of my kids.

At least until the system collapes, and the ants survive while the grasshoppers starve.

Posted by: Mark L at October 12, 2011 07:34 AM

The obvious model being used here is that the education industry has seen the definitions for being professional and have created practices that mimic it, thereby creating in the minds of their members the belief that they are professionals, worthy of higher salaries (like doctors, lawyers and engineers), higher esteem in the community and limiting competition.

Yes, there is a higher education requirement to be a teacher, but there is no reason for that to be the case other than an arbitrary policy. If you can't teach grades 1-6 on what you learned sitting in a classroom for 12 years, you failed.

Posted by: Professional Hale at October 12, 2011 09:43 AM