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Connections: Rowing Against The Tide

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Whether teaching should be considered a profession--like medicine or law--is a question that has been raised frequently in recent years. Invariably the discussion focuses on the characteristics that distinguish a profession from other occupations. The list is sometimes long and a bit dense.

In simpler terms, the 1986 report of the Task Force on Teaching as a Profession described professionals as people who "bring special expertise and judgment to the work at hand. Because their expertise and judgment is respected and they alone are presumed to have it, professionals enjoy a high degree of autonomy in carrying out their work. They define the standards used to judge the qualifications of [their fellow] professionals in the field, and they have a major voice in deciding what program of preparation is appropriate for professionals in their field.''

The report continues: "Because professionals themselves are expected to have the expertise they need to do their work, organizations that employ professionals are not typically based on the authority of supervisors, but rather on collegial relationships among professionals. This does not mean no one is in charge, but it does mean that people practicing their profession decide what is to be done and how it is to be done within the constraints imposed by the larger goals of the organization.''

That excerpt more accurately describes the practice of law and medicine than it does teaching. But it also presents a tantalizing glimpse of what teaching could and should be.

Joan Riedl is an example of what a professional is and does, even in an environment that is not usually conducive to professionalism. Her story, which begins on page 24, embodies many of the characteristics of a professional. First, she evaluated her own professional performance and found it lacking. Then she began the search for better ways to practice her craft. She needed to know more, so she went back to college and earned a master's degree; she read, she pondered, and she worked out her own vision of what a school should be like, how teachers and students should relate to each other.

As Riedl's knowledge and vision developed, her confidence grew. She knew that to create the kind of classroom she had in mind she would need considerable autonomy. She also realized she would have to push against the status quo-- always a risky and seldom successful endeavor. She also knew that she would have to persuade administrators, parents, and fellow teachers that her ideas were right and would work. In short, she would have to be a leader as well as a teacher.

Riedl's story is the first in a series about leadership that Teacher Magazine will publish in the next 12 months. The series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. We will be writing about teachers who-- individually or collectively--have taken the initiative to change and improve their schools, their districts, or their profession. We invite our readers to nominate candidates for the series.

The teachers featured in our story on Fenway Middle College High School (page 20) demonstrate some of those essential characteristics of leadership. They have created a very different alternative to the traditional high school--one that offers innovative interdisciplinary curricula, flexible scheduling, and a supportive and personalized environment. The school was designed for students who weren't making it in the conventional high schools of Boston and more often than not would have become dropouts.

Joan Riedl, the Fenway staff, and hundreds of professionals in schools across the country are rowing against the tide to reach worthy goals. They're making a difference in the lives of students and colleagues. Perhaps they are even beginning to influence the direction of schooling in this nation. That helps keep them going--that and the hope that the tide will eventually turn. --Ronald A. Wolk

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