Almost two years ago, against a backdrop of industrial strike action, I wrote a piece on how important it is that New Zealand teachers reclaimed their profession before they could expect anyone to listen to them:
It is not all about the money. But it is about status and that goes hand in hand with money. Teaching might be seen as a valuable and honourable profession in New Zealand but teachers are not afforded the same status as business owners, politicians, pilots, doctors, and lawyers. Teachers will always be fighting for money, resources, and time as long as they lack the status required to garner the necessary support from the public and those the public have voted for to act in the best interests of the profession and ultimately, our young people. Teachers need to reclaim their professional status.
Now, against a backdrop of a pandemic, teachers around the world reclaiming their profession might just be essential to the survival of our species. This is not about teachers getting what we think we are owed. This is not about money and status for services rendered. Teachers must reclaim our profession as we are the ones that could return humanity to the only form in which it can endure – connected and compassionate.
Every person, regardless of their profession or position in their communities, has a contribution to make to our collective future. But teachers are in a unique, privileged and very influential position in that they have an opportunity to shape each person as they prepare to make their contribution. This has always been the case and the more romantic of us might have been drawn to the profession for this very reason. Whether or not you are a romantic, humanity would be the ultimate beneficiary if we started doubling down on this rhetoric and were able to elevate the profession beyond ‘valuable and honorable.’
But rhetoric is obviously not enough. To reclaim our profession, we need to reinvent ourselves as professionals and the autonomy that we need to do that will not be granted unless we first address our reputation as professionals.
As valuable and honorable as the profession is, some people would question that it is even a profession at all. It is fair to say that many of those that question this do not have an appreciation of what teachers actually do. Now, thanks to COVID-19, I think many of those people might be ready to submit to the realization that teachers actually do quite a lot. But everyone is busy. Being busy doesn’t qualify anyone as being professional.
Professionalism can be defined as the competence or skill expected of a professional. COVID-19 and online learning has opened teachers’ professionalism up to scrutiny like never before. In this context, the competence and skill of every teacher is laid bare to households around the world. Parents who might not have stepped into their children’s classrooms other than for obligatory back-to-school evenings or conferences, now know exactly what and how their children are being taught.
It is not really fair that our competence and skills might be judged in this context given that online teaching competencies and skills are often far removed from what would be on show in an actual classroom. But it is inevitable that we are being judged and as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us, this is an opportunity to enhance our professional reputation that may never present itself again. It is absolutely crucial that we are putting our best foot forward, however difficult that is given that this virus has also turned our own lives upside down.
For some of us, we might already be faced with teaching some students online while teaching face-to-face the students who could safely come to school. If you do find yourself in that unenviable situation, your competence and skill will be judged by an appreciative community craving a sense of normalcy. In a sense, you might even become their heroes – admired for your courage and noble qualities.
Now that everyone appreciates us, we can reclaim our profession. We can reclaim it from people, well intentioned or otherwise, who seem to want to tell us how to do what we have actually trained to do.
I am not sure if any other profession is second-guessed as much as teaching is. After visiting a doctor, a person might seek a second opinion. Or people might put architectural plans past two different builders. But in both cases, it is the competence or skills of another builder or doctor that is being sought. The client will rarely replace that competence or skill with their own and in both of these cases it would be reckless to do so.
The only way to stop being second-guessed as a professional is to be assured in your competence and skill. From my experience, teachers are often reluctant to sing their own praises. They are generally very self-effacing and I have found this humility to be even more pronounced in very good teachers. As a principal seeking to promote good teaching and learning, I sometimes wish teachers would be a little more forward. But I would take humility over arrogance any day – especially as we seek to develop a connected and compassionate world. However, even if humility is advantageous to teaching and learning, it is not much use in promoting your competence and skill to those that might not appreciate it. So how do we do that and remain humble?
In my opinion, the solution is a focus on the science of teaching and learning. I know many great teachers who, even if their career depended upon it, would be incapable of sincerely saying to anyone that what they do is great. So let us not make teachers sell out like that. But what I would make teachers do is bring everything they do back to science.
Learning is a complex task. What goes on in a person’s brain as they are learning can only be effectively explained in scientific terms. Not enough people associate teaching with neuroscience, psychology, physiology, sociology or a combination of all of these plus a few more branches. Whether they are conscious of it or not, effective teachers plan, teach, and assess according to what is important to learn and is most likely to cause learning. What is most likely to cause learning can be explained in scientific terms. So let us take the scientific angle. Humble teachers might not feel comfortable promoting themselves but I wonder if they could promote the science upon which their practice is based? For example, if I take one of my children to our family doctor with a fever or a rash, the doctor won’t just prescribe medicine and leave it at that. The doctor will usually give some explanation about what is going on in my child’s body and the logic behind her diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes I listen and sometimes I don’t but this ritual builds in me a sense of trust in our doctor’s professionalism. She obviously knows more than me so I am going to let her do what she thinks is best and follow her advice. Teachers could build that same sense of trust in parents (and children) by explaining at every opportunity the ‘why’ of their practice. And once people trust us, the second-guessers will disappear and we can reclaim our profession.
To garner trust in this way obviously depends upon teachers understanding the science behind effective teaching and learning. Teaching is both a science and an art. And that is what makes it such a complex undertaking. But right now, our professional focus needs to be on the science part.
This virus will inevitably be followed by much hand-wringing from those inside and outside our profession that will call for an overhaul of educational models and systems. I would much prefer for that overhaul to be led by those within our profession and preferably by teachers themselves – as scientists. Scientists who are able to articulate why this works and this does not work and make decisions accordingly. Without interference from or (even worse) reliance upon publishers or politicians or even some school administrators (well meaning or otherwise) who may seek to undermine the professionalism of teachers for political capital or just plain capital.
This autonomy to make decisions, which is what I believe all true professionals crave, must be earned. Teachers must be willing to earn this autonomy by continually and openly hypothesising, experimenting, researching, and concluding why something works and why something else does not work. Those who do are the ones who will reclaim our profession for the good of every person on this planet. But they probably won’t want to talk about it….