Sunday, 6 July 2008

Is teaching a profession?

Every job seems to be described as a profession these days. But it was not always thus. Three factors have been at work. One is good old muddle-brained egalitarianism - "Everyone is equal, therefore, if your job is called a profession so must be mine". The second is self-importance - "My job is more difficult than others, therefore, it must be distinguished from the easier ones by being called a profession." The third is a negotiating position - "If my job is not called a profession I cannot demand as much money as I could if it were a profession, therefore, it must be labelled a profession." Each factor is perfectly reasonable from the perspective of its proponent, but each has a practical flaw.

The egalitarian approach ignores the fact that "profession" is not a synonym for "job". Perhaps it will become so through usage, but it is not so yet. If the two ever become synonymous someone will invent a new way of categorising jobs to reflect the reality that not all work is equally demanding.

The self-important approach might well be the explanation for certain jobs being called "professions" in the first place, but it does not provide a definition of a profession it simply means that certain jobs become classified as professions when previously they were not. Because it is not definitive there is nothing to prevent every field of work other than the single most menial being brought into the same classification. Were that to happen the last would be brought in too because the synonym would be established.

The negotiating-position approach necessarily recognises that the job in question is not a profession but seeks to give it that title for a particular purpose only. Some jobs are generally recognised in our society as deserving greater pay than others. The criteria we use are many, varied and not necessarily substantive, but attaching a label to a job is not one of them.

So what is a profession? Conventionally (as reflected by dictionary definitions) a profession is a field of work which requires specialist knowledge acquired by academic training and a formal qualification. A set of standards (often called a code of conduct) to which each member of the profession must adhere is a necessary consequence of the basic definition because there is no point requiring someone to pass difficult exams to become a "professional person" if they can then act as they wish when conducting their calling. And it is a necessary consequence of the set of professional standards that there must be penalties (including disqualification) for those who do not perform their work to an acceptable standard.

I have long wondered whether teaching is a profession. The reason I am in a quandary is that I believe very firmly it should be a profession
because I was lucky enough as a child to benefit from the work of many highly skilled and highly dedicated teachers. Unfortunately I also witnessed a few who were simply incompetent yet remained employed because there was no mechanism for sacking them. My schools were state schools, a village primary and a grammar school. Each had the luxury of being able to select the (ostensibly) best candidates for any teaching vacancy from a huge number of applicants but, life being real and not a fairy story, some who appeared impressive turned out to be donkeys.

Unless and until the incompetent are excluded from teaching, teaching can never be viewed as a profession. After all, what happens to the incompetent lawyer or accountant? He sets up in practice but gets no work and cannot earn a living. OK, that's the theory, in fact many of them gain lowly positions with local authorities or central government where incompetence is not a bar to employment. That might do no harm in many instances because an incompetent lawyer or accountant can still do something useful within a large department, he just cannot be let loose on anything important.

Teaching is different because there is no equivalent to giving the incompetent lawyer responsibility for collating documents in a file or the incompetent accountant responsibility for arithmetical calculations. Teaching is nothing without an audience of pupils who need to learn. Retention of incompetent teachers in a school is always an unmitigated disaster and their incompetence drags down the standing of their colleagues who deserve recognition as professional people. Until they face the same practical requirement of good quality performance as lawyers and accountants in private practice I have to conclude that their field of work cannot be classified as a profession. That does not prevent the good teachers from claiming, justly, to be professional (adjective, not noun) people but it does hold back the collective body of teachers from deserving to be labelled a (noun, not adjective) profession.

This conclusions saddens me enormously. If I may (which I may
because this is my blog) let me tell you a true story from my schooldays to explain why it saddens me. I will name the teacher concerned because he deserves acknowledgment by name (incidentally I am not the one pupil to whom I make reference).

It was necessary for all of us to grasp a particular concept of mathematics in order for us to be able to understand the remainder of the year's syllabus. I was either 14 or 15, I cannot now remember which. Our teacher, Mr Colin Chubb, explained the principle in one way and one or two grasped it. Then he explained it is an entirely different way and more got the point. He could see who had "got it" and who had not, so his eyes concentrated on those in the latter category. Then a third different explanation came, then a fourth and a fifth until there was only one pupil who had not yet understood. We were not the best behaved of classes in general, but you really could not hear a pin drop because we all realised we were witnessing a display of skill equal to anything Federer and Nadal produced during today's amazing Wimbledon final. Mr Chubb produced his sixth explanation and asked the one remaining pupil in his eyesight a question which would show whether they understood; the answer showed they did not. The seventh explanation, again different from the previous six, did the trick.

Such an extraordinary display of skill might only have been required of him that one time in his whole career. He would have faced no sanction had he given up after three, four or five attempts and said "we must move on". There was no code of conduct by which teachers could be sacked if they did not do their work properly. But none of that was of any consequence to him, he applied a professional standard because it was the right thing to do and, I have no doubt, gave him great satisfaction. If ever I witnessed something that labelled someone a "professional person", that was it. Sadly the system retains hangers-on - time serving incompetents - and the Mr Chubbs of this world are demeaned by that system.


Sujatha said...

I also take this opportunity to salute such wonderful teachers like Mr. Chubb, who put in their heart & soul to reach to their students and thereby make a difference to everybody's lives.

Your teacher is of rarest species. However, as you said there is no system to pick up the best and retain while throwing the incompetent ones out of the system.

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