How to Professionalize Teaching

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Everyone knows that great teachers are the key to a great education. But how do we get more of them?

One popular request is to treat teachers as professionals, a “certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level” rather than “interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line out of the last century.” Advocates of this approach typically focus on:

  1. Greater respect
  2. Higher pay
  3. Tougher certification
  4. Clearer accountability

While those are noble goals, there seems to be very little discussion about the structural changes necessary to achieve those results. Nobody even seems to realize that those four are signs of professionalization rather than the cause:

  • Pay and respect are outcomes of professionalization
  • Certification and accountability are consequences of professionalization.

We can’t simply cargo cult teaching into a profession by adopting the trappings of other professions. We need to first help teachers become professionals if we want them to be treated like professionals.

The bad news is that this means professionalization isn’t something we can solve simply by passing a law or changing district policy.  The good news is that professionalism is a set of behaviors that individual teachers – and  the schools that produce them — can choose to adopt whenever they want, rather than having to wait for a societal sea change.

What kind of behaviors? There’s actually many possible routes to greater professionalism. Here’s three:

1. Entrepreneurship

An entrepreneur starts with a vision, then acquires whatever resources are necessary to achieve it.  Teachers who start and run schools earn respect and autonomy the old-fashioned way — through hard work and results, not credentials.  Individual entrepreneurs don’t wait for their schools to change, but start right where they are by flipping classes or helping students write a book.

2.  Client Management

Smart professionals realize that  relationships are more important than results.  Everyone knows that parental involvement is critical to student success, and that there are more tools than ever to help teachers connect to parents. Great teachers understand what parents need, then manage expectations to minimize stress and gain the trust and freedom to do what they think is best.

3. Leverage

There are around six million teachers in the U.S., which is ten times the number of doctors and  seven times the number of lawyers. However, there are just over a million teachers assistants, while doctors have 3 million nurses to help them; never mind receptionists and other paraprofessionals.  This is one reason doctors are paid so well: they can focus their time on where they add the most value.

The uncomfortable implication is that a truly professionalized educational system would likely invert those ratios. We could end up with a million or fewer highly-paid “pro teachers” who generate new content, which is then leveraged by several million “para-teachers” who coach individuals or teams using those  resources and algorithms.

This may not be possible — or even desirable. But these are the kinds of questions we need to ask and answer if we want to move beyond cheap sound bites and help teaching become a truly respected profession.

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