Teachers as Professionals
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
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
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
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
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.