Teaching as a Profession – or not

I spend a lot of time talking with teachers and other educators, and invariably, in the course of doing so, we end up comparing and contrasting elements of my world – that of a former military officer and former career intelligence guy – with their world, that as teachers and educators.  And one thing that comes up, often, is the debate over whether teaching or even just educating is a profession.

In many ways, just the fact that anyone is even having the debate, is indicative that it isn’t. Just as “Do these pants make my ass look fat?” is actually a trick question.

But there are two things that I want to explain, that I often cite, that I think will illustrate my point. The first is about professions in general, and the second is about being a professional.

There are a few fields that are commonly – and easily – recognized as being professions. The legal field, the medical field, and the religious field (but that’s usually just men of the cloth, since even in this profession, women seem to take a second seat) are ones we commonly recognize as being professions.

One thing that each of these fields share is that they each have their own code of professional ethics. It’s a code that is shared across all of the profession, embraced commonly by all (well, most if not all) of its members, and is a single code.

It’s a single code of ethics. One code. Not one in this hospital but different in that, or modified to apply to this law firm but not that, or a code that varies greatly across a single religion.

Teachers, and education, don’t have one. There are some codes of ethics for teachers, or for educators, but there certainly isn’t one.  Some schools and districts seem to have their own.  Tennessee has its own, as an example. But not one of these is for all of the profession and certainly none have been adopted by all members.

Teacher to teacher, educator to educator, school to school, state to state – there is no consistency, there is no commonality, there is no code of ethics that binds the practitioners, as there is in other fields. What it means to be a teacher, what it means to be in the education fields, varies based on who you are, what you do, and where you do it, in no small part from a lack of things like a code of ethics.

When I’m not giving this example, the other one I give is from my time as a Soldier and as an intelligence professional.  It’s about knowing and being a professional within the whole of the field. Which is something that does not happen in teaching and education, at all.

Somewhere during my time in the Army and in my time in the intelligence field, I stopped being one of the 1000 monkeys at a keyboard, and I started becoming a member of the profession. There’s a transitional point, wherein a new member of the field embraces the profession, and it stops just being a job and it starts truly being their profession.

One of the things I did was pursue advance training and education – we all do that within our fields, but we all do that especially within a profession. It’s part of what makes it a learned profession. It wasn’t just to make me better at executing the tasks associated with my job at that moment, it was to immerse me into all of the profession – the parts I had used, the parts I was using, the parts I might someday use, and even the parts I realistically thought I would not ever use.

One of my good friends did two stints in the Army’s Recruiting Command. And he’s call me when he had people interested in enlisting in the Army, into Military Intelligence jobs, but they had questions above and beyond what he thought he could answer. “I need you to talk to them,” he would say, before putting them on the phone.

And I would field their questions. And Military Intelligence job in all of the Army, fielding any question and potentially new recruit might throw my way. “What Military Occupational Skill (MOS) are you signing up for, and what do you think that’s going to be like?” I would ask them, before then going into the other things that really would matter. “Do you know what the progression is like for advanced training for this MOS, as you make rank?” or “Where are you with regards to completing you college degree, and do you know what sorts of degrees goes best with this MOS?”  or even “Would you like to hear my thoughts on this MOS, after having worked with some of them in Iraq?” Every time was a marathon session, and every time I sought to make it as rich and as informative as I could – this was, after all, just another part of my profession, and I was speaking to a future member of it.

When I tell this tale to and cite this example for teachers and other educators, and I ask them if they could do this for all of teaching or all of education, they invariably balk. It’s too big. There’s too much variation. I’ve only ever taught my one grade, or a couple. But I remind them that I’ve only had a few jobs, too, but that didn’t stop me in my pursuit of personal and professional development within my profession, to get to that point. And the Army and the intelligence fields, I would offer, were as big if not bigger than the teaching or education fields, and I damn well was doing my best to be a professional and learn them.

But most, many, even a lot of teachers don’t view the field of teaching and education in this way. They don’t see the need for or want to learn about the whole of it, not in the way I wanted or felt I needed to if I were to truly become a professional within my field.

And here’s the other thing: the comeback can’t be to say, we’ll that’s different. Doctors don’t say that. Lawyers don’t either.  They may settle into one aspect of their profession, but in preparing to join their learned profession, they are immersed into it all. They learn it all, or a lot of it, before heading off to specialize.  Teachers don’t even make the argument with me that they do that, before settling into their teaching roles and getting on with their teaching careers.

It’s why teaching won’t be a profession, until the culture within teaching and education change.

3 thoughts on “Teaching as a Profession – or not

  1. Teaching is my profession. I have a degree for it, I get paid to do it. The code of ethics in this profession has been proven multiple times when teachers put themselves in front of a bullet to save their kids, sometimes those bullets are real and sometimes they are emotional. Teachers from every state have had moments of putting themselves on the line to advocate for the students they teach. If it doesn’t appear like teachers are pushing themselves professionally, it might have more to do with the fact that they are overworked and underpaid.
    Also, as I have seen multiple times, asking questions and making suggestions usually doesn’t pay. I think that the profession of teaching has suffered because it is largely worked by women and run by men. I hope this changes but the people who have a voice don’t generally get involved. They choose a job that pays in dollars instead of hugs.

  2. A profession is a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. That’s teaching. Teaching is a profession.

    A military code of ethics is a little difficult to compare to education when you consider that of all the military branches, of all the fields, of all the differences, there is only one employer. So the US military has a code. Would you say that mercenaries also follow the US military code of ethics?

    Most states acknowledge that teachers are local employees, and when you throw year-to-year contracts into it, there are many locals that do not treat educators as employees but contract laborers. So who makes the code of ethics? The employer? The state? A union? An association? The parents? While you cite a variety of codes and state that “there is no consistency, there is no commonality,” that’s incorrect. Teachers’ codes of ethics are very similar, and I think it’s unfair to say that teaching in one area is a totally different ballgame from another. Twitter PLNs wouldn’t exist if that were true. Educators connect internationally because, internationally, education is the same.

    Once you get past having a code, enforcing the code is the next step. Lawyers can be disbarred. Doctors can have their licenses revoked. The military has dishonorable discharge. Teaching has code enforcement; while apparently we have no standard code, states have no problem revoking licenses for violations of their code of ethics. Teachers do not stand with those who cheat on tests, assault and molest kids, or otherwise violate ethical expectations.

    The part-and-whole argument is difficult for me to grasp because that is something I can do, and I do it all the time. But before my day job required it, when I was becoming a teacher, I shared classes with elementary educators, high school educators, special educators, technology specialists, even a nurse. Our professors counseled us the way you counseled new recruits. When I taught middle schoolers, I could still tell you what tests the high school students took, what tests the elementary students took, what norm-referenced tests the special ed. department used, and what signatures IEPs and 504s require and who on the team needed to be at the meeting. I could tell a 6th grader who wanted to be a soldier that he’d better pay attention because the ASVAB was only five years away, and there’s not a lot of time to catch up, so you’d better pay attention.

    Hell, I knew the field trip paperwork, bookkeeper, and transportation supervisor so well, for two years I filled out virtually every field trip request form for my entire middle school because I could do it the fastest. Now that I’ve taken the steps to become an administrator, I can explain central office workings as well. I can bore you with education law, professional liability insurance, and the difference between fiscally dependent and independent districts.

    Now, you could argue that the profession needs more standardization, but so did medicine and law at one point. The difference between other professions and education is that in other professions, the expert is an expert in something that isn’t your child (law, military, banking) or obviously has access to tools that you don’t have (medicine). To think that someone is more of an expert in the topic of Your Child is insulting, and most people don’t realize the tools that educators have access to. But teachers are experts in learning and child development and child psychology. That’s the profession. We are experts in children, generic.

    You talk about the point when it stops being a job and starts being a profession. Sometime around the time when a kid throws up on you, or you’re cleaning poop out of a keyboard, or you’re admonishing a thirteen-year-old girl about poor decision-making and “Do you plan to end up pregnant before you hit high school? Because that’s the path you’re on,” or you’re making a giant Get Well card for the student having major leg surgery so he can continue walking, or you’re planning a party because all of your students can read now!!! or you’re sitting in your classroom on your duty-free lunch crying with The Bad Kid about his alcoholic father, or you’re standing in a hallway for an hour keeping your students calm by explaining that in a real tornado situation, you’d be on the ground too and it must be those little kids not doing the drill right, knowing full well that your building is in the path of a confirmed tornado, or you’re explaining to the top student why he can’t say to his biracial friend, “You’re not very black,” or you’re attending a student’s funeral – at some point, education isn’t Just a Job. I’m told education has a really terrible retention rate; I assume it’s because the people who want an easy job hit that transition moment and run like hell. And I’m glad they do; the last thing I want my child experiencing is a hard year with a clock-puncher.

    So you can equate your child’s teacher to a part-time mechanic at Jiffy Lube or a knowledgeable, ethical professional who would literally die for your child if necessary. I know which I prefer.

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