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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 15, Number 2, Nov./Dec. 2002

A union of professionals or something else?

Profession or occupation? Professional workers or employees? What’s the difference and what difference does it make? These are questions we teachers thought we had dealt with a long time ago. There was a time when teachers’ claim to professional status would have been dubious. We had little control over our conditions of practice, specifically the learning conditions of our students. We had few opportunities to determine and pursue professional issues such as accommodating student differences, considering and evaluating methodologies, making independent judgments about student’s progress. Teachers were, in earlier times, primarily custodial workers. We worked from tightly prescribed curricula within closely supervised methodologies. Teaching was a low-status occupation, certainly not a profession.

Over time, we teachers have elevated our relative status. We have done that on several fronts, the most obvious being salaries. Less apparent is the effort we have made in expanding professional autonomy. But it is the degree of professional autonomy that determines whether teaching is a profession or an occupation.

The distinction between occupation and profession is important. As practitioners of an occupation, we are entirely governed or controlled by managers and employers. Our education, experience, and judgments are discounted or even disregarded. Teaching is less about innovation and creative adaptation and more about following orders. Teachers are less autonomous in that important decisions about the form and content of our students’ education is determined elsewhere, by others often several steps (or kilometres) away from the classroom.

Teaching is starting to look a lot like an occupation. This development has taken various forms. One of the most insidious is the gradual erosion of our opportunity to function effectively in professional development. If we truly are professionals, we must have the opportunity to decide on the how, where, and what of our education and training related to our practice. This is a fundamental characteristic of any true profession. We are not directed into training programs at the behest of a manger. We do not have demands placed on our time that in our judgment do not apply to or enhance our work.

The most prevalent current example of the incursion on our professional autonomy is the growing tendency for our professional development time to be dedicated to initiatives set in place by the employer. The accountability regime, with all of its requisite parts has in the past 10 years come to dominate our time. Much of what is on offer has value. It does help us teachers do our work. The problem is it is taking up too much space and we are losing some of our autonomy. We are being treated as employees, not professionals, far too often.

What difference does it make? Accountability is important. If we are true professionals, this is a part of our mandate, and we have to take it seriously. If it means using professional development time, so be it; our credibility depends on it. This is all true, but we are rapidly arriving at a point of no return. We may be developing a collective mindset where we blur the distinction between professional development and staff development or in-service education. We are gradually, perhaps unwittingly, abandoning our professional autonomy. Quality teaching does depend on our opportunities as practitioners of a profession to determine our particular professional needs. If all the time and resources we have available go toward the implementation of employer initiatives. then something else is getting short shrift. It may be some aspect of my teaching that is of more relevance to my students than, say, accountability. I have to be able to decide. If I have little chance to do that, then I may still call myself a teacher but not a professional teacher.

– Pat Clarke



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