FEd Summer 2001 Newsletter - Teachers as Professionals

Summer 2001



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Teachers as Professionals

Stan Jones

In an article in the last FEd newsletter, Ken Heller called for the professionalization of teaching at the K-12 level. His article focussed almost entirely on salaries. There is no doubt that low salaries are the main evidence for the low professional status of teachers, and I completely agree that raising salaries is the most important step we can make in attracting more competent teachers to the schools. However, there are many aspects to being a professional, and the teaching "profession" today lacks most of these. If we as a society truly value education, we should be putting our money into not only the salaries of our teachers, but into the entire educational structure, including the working conditions of these teachers. Teachers are given one of the greatest responsibilities we can give to another person, that of educating our children. We have the obligation to treat them, and to expect them to behave, as professionals.

I was involved a few years back with an organization known as the Holmes Group. This consortium of research universities "dedicated to improving teacher education and the profession of teaching" published a landmark white paper called Tomorrow's Teachers which was, in fact, a call for the professionalization of teaching. Here is a summary of the goals of the Holmes Group as stated in this monograph:

1.To make the education of teachers intellectually more solid. Teachers must have a greater command of academic subjects, and of the skills to teach them. They also need to become more thoughtful students of teaching, and its improvement.

2.To recognize differences in teachers' knowledge, skill, and commitment, in their education, certification, and work. If teachers are to become more effective professionals, we must distinguish between novices, competent members of the profession, and high-level professional leaders.

3.To create standards of entry to the profession--examinations and educational requirements--that are professionally relevant and intellectually defensible. America cannot afford any more teachers who fail a twelfth grade competency test. Neither can we afford to let people into teaching just because they have passed such simple, and often simpleminded exams.

4.To connect our own institutions to schools. If university faculties are to become more expert educators of teachers, they must make better use of expert teachers in the education of other teachers, and in research on teaching. In addition, schools must become places where both teachers and university faculty can systematically inquire into practice and improve it.

5.To make schools better places for teachers to work, and to learn. This will require less bureaucracy, more professional autonomy, and more leadership for teachers. But schools where teachers can learn from each other, and from other professionals, will be schools where good teachers will want to work. They also will be schools in which students learn more.

In examining these goals, it might be illuminating to make a comparison between the status of, say, professors and K-12 teachers. I'll focus primarily on the 2nd and 5th goals.

Goal 2. We professors have ranks we can aspire to, ranks which afford higher salaries and prestige and stand as incentives to encourage achievement. For the vast majority of K-12 teachers, this is not the case. How can a teacher then justify the tremendous amount of energy required to continually upgrade his or her teaching skills? What incentive is there to keep abreast of new research on teaching and learning? What incentive is there to experiment and be a part of the generation of new knowledge? Instead, what our current system encourages is a strategy of survival, and there is a serious burnout problem that causes teachers, especially good ones, to leave the profession at an early age.

Goal 5. There are many ways in which the schools today are not good places to work, and in which teachers are treated more like assembly line workers than professionals. Think first about the profession of being a university faculty member (a professor...the epitome of a professional!). University faculty have secretaries to handle routine tasks such as communication with others, preparation of written materials, photocopying, etc. We have (most of us!) travel budgets and are encouraged to be active in professional organizations. We have time to prepare our classes and reflect on the teaching process. We have a budget for teaching materials, and time to learn how to use them. And many of us have assistants to help with grading, running labs, etc. Most of us have a private telephone line! And most of us do NOT have the legislature or the board of education telling us just what we must teach and which standardized test our students must be able to pass.

Contrast this with the K-12 teacher who generally does not have an assistant or a phone, who must handle all student/parent communications herself, and who may or may not have a preparation period built into her schedule. It is especially rare for elementary teachers to have such preparation times. On the contrary, many of them are required to spend their lunch hours supervising children, and may also have to supervise children both before and after school hours. It is common for K-12 teachers to spend long hours at home preparing lessons and grading papers, and to spend significant amounts of their own money on supplies. Finally, many teachers must deal with serious discipline problems on a daily basis. This is not a professional working environment.

Goals 1 and 3: Our college and university employers and constituents have high expectations of us as professionals. We have earned advanced degrees and are presumed to be experts in our fields. We are expected to remain current in our fields and to be "professionally active," whether through research or innovation in teaching. We are, in other words, expected to be "scholars." We need to have similar expectations of those given the responsibility of educating our children.

University faculty are not, interestingly, required to have significant training in the art of teaching and it must be said that the expectations placed upon us as teachers vary widely from institution to institution. Perhaps we need to work some more on developing our own professional standards.

Goal 4: Science faculty must play an important role in preparing these teachers. It is paramount that university faculty recognize the importance of teaching, and of training teachers. Our disciplines must include as one of their high priorities the training of K-12 teachers; how else will they gain the "command of academic subjects" that professional teachers need?

I agree, in other words, that teachers need to be treated, and they need to act, like professionals. In my mind, we will have approached that stage when teachers are paid professional salaries, when they all have paraprofessional aides, when they have time set aside during the work day for preparation, grading, and reflection, and for meeting individually with students. Support personnel will make arrangements for such things as conferences with parents and field trips, and parents will understand that education is so important that it should start in the home, at birth. Teacher professionals will have travel funds to attend national meetings in their fields, where they will learn the latest research findings, will present papers to communicate their own ideas and findings, and (most important) talk in the hallways with other professionals about the new exciting experiments they are trying out. These teaching professionals will be so valued that they will be able to compete for numerous summer grants for research and training, and for summer appointments in corporations and businesses.

I'd like to see our public school systems take some steps in this direction.

Stan Jones is Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alabama. He is editor of the summer issue of this newsletter.