Defining a Profession. . .

One of the constant debates raging in conversations about education in America centers on the idea of whether or not teaching is a true profession. 

Many would argue that teaching is a true profession based on the commitment, dedication and training of educators which neatly parallels other professions.  Others see teaching as something more akin to a skilled trade that can be easily mastered by anyone.  Rancor tends to define this debate as advocates vehemently argue in favor of their unyeilding position.

Before answering this question effectively, it is important to define the characteristics of a profession.  Until we come to agreement about shared characteristics of professional fields, it will be impossible to come to consensus about where teaching stands on the continuum of work. 

Here’s what I think defines a profession:

1.  Professions have a codified body of knowledge that is defined by practioners and applied in a systematic way.  Think about medicine:  Doctors work together to identify approaches for diagnosing and treating disease that is shared and generally followed by all in the field. 

2.  Professions provide differentiated pay for differentiated skill sets.  Again, medicine provides a good example for comparison:  Cardiologists performing open heart surgeries on a regular basis are paid more than podiatrists removing plantars warts. 

3.  Professions retain ownership over entry and evaluation standards.  Law is probably the best example of this professional trait:  Lawyers have to answer for their actions before review boards that are comprised of other lawyers and that have the power to revoke licenses.  Just ask Durham’s DA Mike Nifong about the power of legal review boards.

4.  Professionals retain responsibility for assessing and holding themselves accountable for the results of their work. 

5.  Professions are responsive to the times, taking an action orientation to their work and continually improving established practices.  Return to medicine:  Treatments are continually being perfected as new technologies and medicines are discovered and introduced by practitoners. 

6.  Professions offer practitioners opportunities for continued professional growth over the course of a career.   

What do you think of my definition?  Did I include all of the critical elements of a profession?  Would you have included any other key points?  Would you remove any of those that I’ve identified?  Why?

Better question:  By my definition, would teaching qualify as a profession?  Why or why not?  What impact does this have on our ability to recruit and retain motivated young scholars to our field?


3 thoughts on “Defining a Profession. . .

  1. guanacaste costa rica

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  2. Mike

    Hi Bill. Good to have you back and posting again. You’ve done a good job outlining the basic characteristics of a profession. I’d add only a bit of emphasis to two of your categories and expand a bit beyond that. It might also be worthwhile to consider market forces, such as rarity and familiarity.
    Regarding #2, or compensation, all true professions also set their own compensation. Market forces apply here as there are likely fewer brain surgeons than podiatrists in a given market, thus they can charge appreciably more for their services. Certainly anyone who needs brain surgery will be willing to pay the going rate and more.
    For the purpose of the rest of my deranged musings, let’s consider four groups of practioners: physicians, lawyers, plumbers and teachers. Continuing education requirements tend to be important (and here I may be off base due to limited knowledge about some of these other professions–I’m sure others will help me out here if necessary) primarily to teachers. It’s my understanding that once admitted to the medical, legal and plumbing professions, once you’re licensed and accredited, further academic studies are not actually required. Of course, if a dermatologist wishes to go into, say, otolaryngology, they need to do the required internship and other certifications, but doctors, if they remain in the field in which they were initially certified, need no further schooling to retain their licenses, and I believe the same is true for lawyers and plumbers. I don’t suggest that doctors, lawyers and plumbers make no effort to extend their educations, only that, to my knowledge, it is not absolutely mandatory for retention of their ability to practice Teachers, on the other hand, must constantly study merely to retain their certification.
    “Wait a minute,” you ask, “why are you including plumbers?” If we apply the criteria of professionals to plumbing, we can see that with few exceptions–that the state, rather than other plumbers certifies them–they fit the criteria better than teachers. Yes, they don’t require an undergraduate degree at the lowest entry level to the profession, but that doesn’t impair their earning ability in the slightest.
    If we take a hard look at your list, we can say with absolutely certainty that only #1 truly applies to teachers. You might say that #5 is associated with #1, but not in a way that is definitive to us. Teachers are, indeed, responsive to the times, but teachers 500 years ago and now share one primary fact in common: They’re teaching human beings, and while times change, human beings don’t. Humans learn in the same ways now that they did in the time of Socrates, and we use the Socratic method of teaching now as he did then.
    Oh to be sure, we have faster and more efficient tools, we spend a huge amount of time navel gazing and thinking up new acronyms and titles for the same old belly button lint, but human beings, being human beings, learn effectively in the same ways across millenia. We much better understand the function of the brain and how people learn that we did even 20 years ago, but understanding does not fundamentally change the nature of humanity and the capabilities of individuals to learn. That’s why there really is nothing better than good, dedicated teachers and hard working, interested students if actual learning is to take place, and why schemes such as Direct Instruction work only for a portion of the population. I won’t go into all of the other aspects of education and acculturation involved that also make any single magic method inadvisable.
    Part of the reason that teachers will never be accorded the status of true professionals somes down to rarity and familiarity. Compared to the population at large, doctors in general are rare and specialists rarer still. The same is true to somewhat lesser degrees for lawyers and plumbers. At one time, because a small percent of the popluation attended college, teachers had a sort of distinction, even if they have never been, in comparison to the population, nearly as rare as doctors, lawyers and plumbers, but that is, sadly, no longer true. Colleges now advertise, trying to get anyone and everyone to pay tuition and it’s possible to obtain not only undergraduate but undergraduate degeess having never set foot on a college campus. Even doctorates are pretty much a dime a dozen these days; just ask any newly frocked doctor of whatever academic field searching for a tenure track position in a college or university.
    Familiarity also plays a damaging role. Take the lowly guitar. It is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play, there are hundreds of millions in circulation, in fact, it’s possible to teach yourself, yet it remains one of the most difficult instruments to play well. But its very familiarity tends to devalue it and those who play it in the minds of the public. I am professional. classically trained musician, primarily a first tenor, but I’m also a skilled guitarist. I’ve learned over they years never to leave my guitars unattended, even when I’m performing in the pit orchestra of a production of a Broadway musical (not on Broadway, by the way). Why? Because people will simply pluck my $1800.00 guitar off its stand and start to try to strum it. They would never think of doing the same with a french horn or an oboe, but they’ll do it with a guitar everytime. Not only that, they’ll be annoyed when I ask them not to do it. Familiarity. One guitar is like another to them. One teacher is like another to them.
    The same is true with teaching. Every American takes education for granted, or at least they take for granted that a free public education will be provided for them and that certified teachers will be present in every classroom. Because most Americans have been in school for at least 12 years, they feel that they have a good handle on the entire education process. They don’t feel the same way about medicine, law or plumbing. They have a sense of what a good teacher is and what a bad teacher is. They know what they found boring and what they found valuable. They felt that some tests were easy and some hard. But can they explain, in meaningful ways, why any of this is true? Do they fully understand why a good teacher makes it look so easy? No, yet they feel that they know education because they’ve shared the experience.
    I spend quite a bit of time, over and over again, explaining to my students that a good teacher provides good opportunity, and that they help them to think better, to build bigger, better brains. I explain that they won’t understand or see all that they’ve learned, all the growth that takes place under that teacher’s guidance, and that maybe, if they’re thoughtful, if they lead an examined life, at some time in the future, they’ll understand how important it was that Mr. Smith took a few minutes to explain why Mark Twain used children to force adults to face their own shortcomings in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and how that insight led to a long, long line of other insights that helped them become who they are. That is, I think, what we’re not saying enough.
    For reasons of rarity and familiarity, we will never be a true profession. We’re always going to be the valuable guitar that every dirty fingered snotnose will pick up and try to play. We won’t set our own compensation or our own entrance requirements. We won’t even set educational requirements, nor will be be allowed to police our profession. And our professional growth opportunities, particularly inservice sessions, will continue to make many of us contemplate ritual suicide just to make the pain end.
    Our only hope at raising our status is with each of us, each of us spending the time to thoughtfully, over and over, explain to our students in classrooms all over America how important what we’re doing together is, and how it is far more subtle, and far more valuable, than they can imagine.

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