Friday, April 24, 2009

What Are Teachers? (Cont'd)

Last night I put out the putatively preposterous postulation that teacher were not professionals. So, before I am forced to reap the whirlwind, it's time for an explanation.

What is a professional? I'm not talking about someone who acts in a professional manner, as in "does their job well, honestly, and efficiently." No, I'm talking about professionals, period. A professional is someone who:

- does not invest themselves emotionally in their work.

- works for hire, on short term contracts.

- is brought in to fix a problem, not prevent one.

- does not have a vested interest in connecting with stakeholders.

- is always looking for a better paycheck, or better opportunity.

If teachers were professionals, they would have a short term, mercenary attitude to their work. They would have no reason to really care about their students, to care about how their actions affect those around them over the long term, about creating an atmosphere of continual and gradual improvement.

In other professions, law, medicine, politics, and engineering, the behavior listed above is generally conducive to improving career prospects. But if teachers were like that, well, they wouldn't be teachers, would they? Instructors, maybe, workshop leaders, probably, university professors, definitely.

Another thing about professionals is that they don't like getting their hands dirty with the grunt work, the boring drudgery that, day by day, is a large component of what they do. Doctors have their nurses. Engineers have their laborers. Lawyers have their paralegals. Professors have their teaching assistants. Politicians have their flaks. But teachers? They're on their own.

Professionals also, with the exception of professors, don't have unions. Professional associations, sure. Accrediting bodies, of course, But unions? No. Yet teachers do have unions (and so do professors, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here).

It is the very fact that teaching is generally a unionized occupation that really puts the nail into the notion that teacher are professionals. Why? Because unions did not originate as a way to help out professionals, they developed as a way to help workers, and, more importantly, tradespeople.

Teachers are not professionals, no, but they are tradespeople. Sure the trades are seen as lowly in our society. I mean, you don't go to university for a trade, you go to a community college or, (how ghastly!) you learn on the job through an apprenticeship.

This fact should disqualify teachers as tradespeople, because you need a university degree, in Education no less, to be a real, certified teacher. But as any teacher will tell you, the Education degree has not been made that is worth the price of the paper it is printed on. Teachers learn on the job, and nowhere has this fact been more empirically proved than through the Teach for America program.

Teachers learn on the job just like anyone else in a trade does. Teachers have to get their hands dirty, and deal with the boring detail and drudgery, just like any tradesperson does. But teachers also take pride in their craft, take pride in the quality of their work, and the satisfaction of their customers, just as tradespeople do.

Teaching is hard work, and while teaching is thought of as work of the mind, it mostly is not. It is work of attention to detail, physical presence, performance, and consistency. And while teachers expect to earn a living off their work, as tradespeople do, they also do not expect to get rich by it. They do the work because they, can, they are good at it, and it gives them a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

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