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On Transforming Teaching Into a ‘True Profession’

By James M. Banner Jr. — October 23, 1985 5 min read
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That goal alone distinguishes this commission from those that have preceded it. The question is whether the task force will consider the elements that make up a “true profession” and, having done so, advise us whether schoolteaching in the United States can or should become one. The early publicity surrounding the work of the task force raises serious doubts that it will do either.

We assume that teaching already is a profession--not a job or occupation or calling, each a status worthy of estimation in its own right--and we do so without concern for the inflation and meaning of the concept of a profession. Yet, in fact, schoolteaching in this country is not now a profession. Nor will it become one, despite what many believe, simply by altering teacher examinations, reforming teacher education, improving work conditions, increasing pay, or changing our approaches to school finance and productivity.

In believing that new ways must be found to turn teaching “into a profession that offers rewards comparable to those in other professions,” Lewis M. Branscomb, the task-force chairman, is suitably agnostic, and his notion of rewards remains broad by its vagueness. Still the question remains whether rewards--the benefits to practitioners--or contributions--the benefits to their clients--most accurately represent the nature of a profession. Most reflective scholarship clearly points to the latter.

A true profession is not, and has never been, defined by the elements that compose its tangible benefits, nor are its members professionals by virtue merely of their compensation for work (in contrast to amateurs) or their trustworthiness (as distinct from quacks). A profession is an entire way of work whose endeavors are based upon mastery of a body of specialized knowledge. At its center is an ideal of service, usually to a weaker party, with whom the professional has a fiduciary relationship in return for necessary access to information about intimate dimensions of the other’s existence. In fidelity to the traditions of their guilds, professionals autonomously and collectively establish the standards for their own work, conformable to general community expectations. They take an oath to abide by those standards and can be disciplined by fellow professionals for failing to do so. And, above all, they are expected to uphold those standards by remaining free and being obliged to advise their clients about what is best for them to do as distinguished from what the clients may wish to do.

It is not therefore difficult to see in what respects school-teaching in this country has usually fallen short of being a true profession. Teachers rarely if ever have to demonstrate mastery of the contents of a body of knowledge, and they enjoy few incentives to gain and maintain it. By virtue of the authority of local school boards and the influence of community opinion, teachers are not usually free, either singly or together, to set their own standards or design their own curricula; and the tendency, sometimes the need, to provide instruction in what students and the community wish them to teach makes a mockery of the classic professional ideal of objective counsel--presuming to know, on the grounds of knowledge and experience, what is best for those who are served. Furthermore, unlike true professionals, public-school faculties are not free to control the membership of their own occupational community or, as peers, to assess the behavior and qualifications of fellow professionals and call them to account or reward them as the case may be.

The first job of the Carnegie task force should therefore be to put first things first: to address ways in which the basic professional elements of teaching that do not exist might be created and enhanced. Issues such as pay and faculty perquisites, the length of the workday, and recertification examinations will then follow, as they must, as corollary considerations.

By far the most important of the missing professional elements of teaching is a required command of a body of learning. Many teachers hunger for knowledge but receive no early exposure to it, find few incentives to get it later, and are rarely rewarded--and not just by higher pay--when they achieve it. The mastery of knowledge is hard, wickedly hard, and will make successful entry into teaching hard, too--which is as it should be. Mere changes in the curricula of schools of education or the strengthening of certification requirements will not be enough. Teachers must themselves aspire to learn, and ways must be found to lead them to do so as a lifelong commitment.

So, too, individual school faculties and state teacher associations and unions (if they can summon the will to do so) must be encouraged to set high standards for admittance to the honored status of teacher and must be allowed and gotten to enforce high standards of behavior among their members with appropriate disciplinary authority.

Yet even should such advances toward making teaching more of a true profession be made, the question remains whether in the United States it really can or should be. After all, the historic tradition of American schooling has been community authority. No national or even state school systems exist here. Learning has been taken to reflect the strengths of a community and its aspirations for its youth. Often the community has been a retrograde influence when measured against high standards of knowledge and moral values. Yet more often than not, this epicentral institution of the local jurisdiction--the community school--has released the minds of young people, broadened their spirits, and strengthened their values.

The instruments of this general education have been the teachers themselves, serving not as independent professionals under contract but as representatives and employees of the community. They have not been free to teach everything they might have wished in what they thought were students’ best interests. They have not historically been able independently to recruit and admit others to their work. Had they been able to do so, schoolteaching might have been more “professional,” but then the United States might not have been a federal republic whose multitude of jurisdictions, peoples, and ways make it what it is.

The Carnegie task force should thus get on with the important work of helping improve teaching and the status and conditions of teachers’ work lives, but it should undertake its self-appointed task without romanticism about the nature of American schoolteaching. Make teaching a “true profession”? It is against the historical grain, probably impossible, and most likely not worth the effort. Why not just make teaching an honored occupation whose practitioners are celebrated for their commitment and esteemed and rewarded in many ways for their contributions to the lives of children? Without raising false hopes or calling something what it cannot soon be, that would be a great enough step forward.

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1985 edition of Education Week as On Transforming Teaching Into a ‘True Profession’

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