What Exactly Is Teacher Professionalism, Anyway?

Last spring, I hosted a series of AEI dinners at which a cast of educational leaders sat down to discuss the universal enthusiasm for “personalized learning.” Before too long, the reason for this lovefest became clear: “personalized learning” means different things to different people, and everyone was hearing what they wanted to. When we dug into what people actually meant by “personalized learning,” the happy phrase proved to be a tarp thrown over a smoldering series of differences on pedagogy, policy, curriculum, school design, and the mission of schooling. Now, while that may sound frustrating, participants found the exercise remarkably illuminating and constructive. It revealed points of commonality, flagged baseless assumptions, and surfaced vital questions that we’ve been slow to ask.

We’re reprising the exercise this fall, tackling the timely topic of “teacher professionalism.” Rather than recipes on how to get there, we started with the seemingly simple question of, “What exactly is teacher professionalism, anyway?” And, once again, an impressive crew (including officials from teacher voice groups, teachers unions, Republican and Democratic administrations, foundations, and so forth) made it clear that we approach that deceptively simple query in profoundly different ways. At the kick-off conversation last week, Robert Pondiscio, longtime teacher and now senior fellow at Fordham, helped frame the discussion with a provocative take on unreasonable expectations, the nature of professionalism, and what this means for educators. Because Robert’s take helped spur such fruitful discussion, I thought it worth sharing. He kindly agreed. So, here you go:

Last year I wrote a review of Mark Seidenberg’s book, Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It. Seidenberg is a leading reading researcher and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin. Here’s my opening graph:

“Cognitive neuroscientists are the Cassandras of education. If you don’t remember your middle school introduction to Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo. But when she refused to sleep with him, Apollo didn’t rescind the gift, he added a curse: poor Cassandra could still see the future, but she was doomed never to be believed. Mark Seidenberg probably wishes he were Cassandra. He must wonder just who he has to screw to get people in education to listen to him.”

I’m not sure what comes to mind for others in this room when they hear the phrase “professionalize teaching.” For me it means a very simple thing: making teaching a job that is doable by mere mortals, not classroom saints and superstars. And that starts by training teachers not on theory, not on conditions of learning, not out of concern for the dispositions they bring to the job, but on . . . oh . . . how to teach kids to read.

In that review of the Seidenberg book, I described the terror I felt as a new teacher, and how grateful I was to be teaching fifth grade because I hadn’t been taught the first thing about how to teach kids to read. But it turns out my experience was not the exception—it was the norm. Mind you, I have a master’s degree in elementary education. So it was kind of like graduating flight school without anybody thinking it was important for me to know how to land a plane.

Since leaving the classroom, I’ve written ad nauseam about curriculum and instruction. In the ed reform world, I’m a bit of a bore. In rooms like this I’m the guy who says, “Charter schools? Testing? Accountability? Awesome! Now can we talk about what the kids do all day?”

So count on me again tonight to bore you with that question—What do the kids do all day?—because answering that question is how you “professionalize teaching.” By making it a job that can be done professionally by mere mortals of average sentience. Because that’s who we have in our classrooms, and all we will ever have in our classrooms.

We refuse to structure the job of teacher for this hard, cold reality. When I was a new teacher at PS 277 in the South Bronx, my classroom was sloppy with people who wanted to tell me how to teach. Coaches, consultants, staff developers, mentors, and assistant principals. But when I asked, “OK, but what should I teach?” I was met with blank stares or chuckles. “But Mr. Pondiscio, you’re the best person to know what your children need.”

Are you kidding? I just got here!

I don’t have time to unwind the reasons for all this. But I’ll leave you with a data point and an observation.

A recent study from the RAND Corporation finds that nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary school—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. And where do we find these materials? Among elementary school teachers, the most common answer is Google—94 percent—followed by Pinterest—87 percent. The numbers are virtually the same for math.

For some reason, we expect teachers to be expert at curriculum delivery and expert at curriculum design. And we train them poorly for both jobs. Most schools have nothing you can call a curriculum at all. Then add the expectation that we should differentiate every lesson to meet the needs of each individual student and the job goes well beyond the capacity of nearly all of America’s 3.7 million classroom teachers (myself included).

So—heresy alert—I suspect that the very question we’re asking tonight—how to professionalize teaching?—is likely to lead us astray. I’d like to consider the possibility that teaching isn’t a profession at all. It’s a craft. Like being a plumber, electrician, or an air traffic controller. Honorable work. And the people who do this work are pretty good at it. Because they’ve been trained for the job they’re hired to do.

As you might imagine, Robert’s remarks fueled a heated, clarifying discussion about what it means for teaching to be a profession rather than a craft, how we prepare teachers, and the things we ask teachers to do. As much as we’re inclined to tackle teacher professionalism by talking first about evaluation, compensation, and voice, it may be that Robert’s heresy will ultimately prove a more instructive place to start.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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