The Need for the Professionalization of Teachers and See Themselves as Professionals
by Joseph Calmer
This article is probably not for the teachers who are reading this, but you probably know a teacher whom this article is referring to. Since you are the teacher you are, you already know the NGSS implementation is around the corner. This is considered the “awareness phase” (see “Planning Professional Learning Using the NGSS Implementation Pathway Model”, CSTA 11/14/14). You also know that its success is dependent on a paradigm shift in science education. Science can no longer be taught in the manner that it has in the past.
This is where the professional teachers distinguish themselves. The work of a teacher is unique, and only a teacher understands what I mean. Even though I have taught for eight years, in a way, each year is my first year. My job is constantly changing, but that change is now understood as part of the profession. Anthony Muhammad would categorize this teaching perspective as a ‘Believer.’ He describes a ‘believer’ as a person who is really invested in the notion of the school’s mission statement. That person would really ensure their work and teaching is purposive to the organization’s goals of education all students. In his book, Transforming School Culture, he describes a process of developing school culture change (Muhammad, 2009). He goes on to describe the need for a workforce to work together, despite ones type, to create a culture of learning in your organization. The paramount idea is that schools exist for the development of students; essentially, that is the only thing that matters, at the end of the day.
I think this is the distinction between a professional teacher and one for whom teaching is just a job. I see my professional duties as including. The professional teacher will not read the statement “all students…” as a platitude, but as a mission and an obligation. I see my duty as the study of pedagogy and to ensure the development of the academic lives of my students, not the rote, daily managing of kids (which is part of leadership, but not the only job of a teacher). The former requires continuous study and a dedication to scholarship and praxis, while the latter may gain skills on a Saturday Professional Development session but then come to work Monday with no intention of utilizing the PD that just occurred. The former will care if the outcome is student learning, while the latter may not necessarily care (they believe the learning is only dependent on the skills, motivation, and qualities of the student).
That last statement elucidates a point that is often the elephant in the room in many teacher gatherings. Often this is the unspoken acceptance of some teacher’s philosophies: they feel that the learning needs to occur on the students’ end. The truth is, the students don’t know what they don’t know, so the role of the teacher is to illuminate the path to knowledge. This view of students, by teachers, is referred to as ‘deficit-minded’ and has been written on extensively by others (E.M. Bensimon and R. Smits, for example). This perfunctory view of teaching is not aligned with the goals of the professional teacher. Each move of the professional teacher is purposeful, like the cuts of a surgeon.
Like a surgeon, a good teacher makes it look easy, but their skill is due to many years of practice and study. Practitioners of medicine take an oath to do no harm and a dedication to the healing of their patients. If a doctor tries a treatment and it doesn’t work, they try another treatment. They do not say, “You are untreatable” and send you away. Doctors will modify a prognosis until one achieves the goal for the patient. I would like teachers to see themselves as professionals and realize their duty and see students’ education as an ailment that needs to be healed. This also means that some students/patients will require more effort and work, by the teacher, than others. I think this is the exciting and mystery of education, which requires us to work like professionals: not all students are the same and thus different courses of action are required to attain the desired results. Maybe the teaching profession should consider adopting this process to ratchet up our societal obligations to our “patients.”
Teachers need to see their role in science instruction as a societal duty and obligation, especially in light of the NGSS. Often when I hear teachers talk about their teaching, they are really telling kids about the subject, but not ensuring that the concepts are actually learned. If the students aren’t learning, are you a “teacher?” This is where the underutilized art of being reflexive begins; and is different than almost any other job in society (Rodgers, 2002).
One method of developing professionalism in teaching is through talking. For example, an experienced teacher can foster a mentor-mentee relationship with a newer teacher. In talking to a newer colleague, ideas are formed. It is well known and understood that dialog among teachers creates new knowledge and insight into the profession (Lemlech & Kaplan, 1990). However, the talk needs to be expanded to be effective. This is also the place where a ‘believer’ and a ‘fundamentalist” can talk and share their perspectives, and hopefully foster some meaningful dialogue (Muhammad, 2009).
For example, I recently talked with a newer teacher. We both pontificated the idea that teachers need to educate their students (same platitude that as occurred for 200 years). We agreed that many teachers quickly reason that “that student” simply has bad parents and do not yet have the skills necessary to be successful, or are not motivated to learn. Although these are all possible perceptions (which kids often hold about themselves and others), I extolled a different conclusion. My approach to this (unfortunately) too common and sad perception to this scenario; the student must develop despite this. If the student is allowed to have that excuse, they will carry this excuse into every possible situation. To me, the student can not use those excuses, because almost all the tools to learn will be given to them in class or can be procured online. Moreover, the real work of teachers does not exist as talk alone. If the above teacher only talks, the aforementioned student would not learn. Often great solutions arise when teacher talk to each other, but there must be accountable action after that talk. Even though talk between teachers is good, those discussion need to turn into positive actions in the classroom. The field of education is a manifestation of the hybrid of theory and practice. Professional teachers need to use that colloquial hallway talk to inform their practice, frame their philosophy, and stop simply nodding and moving on.
On another note, I think hubris is antithetical to professionalism. I have sat with teachers, and through sessions presented by people who seem more interested in listing and showing all they know vs. being cordial and professional. In contrast, if anybody went to Peter Hopkinson’s session, you saw a professional teacher. He was there to share his knowledge about teaching and learning, not show off his pedagogical skills and knowledge. He was funny and a model for physics teachers to strive to; without being haughty and contemptuous of us as more novice teachers. I would put Peter Hopkinson in the class of my teaching heroes: Walter Lewin and Richard Feynman. He was the beacon of professional science teaching.
My hope is that after teachers talk there will be action. The talk is often what we all want to hear and more about aggrandizing, rather than reality. The real work will occur when the teacher is faced with the student that puts their head down everyday, is always on their phone, or is always tardy. Will the teacher think, “This kid needs to have better parents” or, “What can I do to educate this student?” The thoughts of the teacher will determine their level of acceptance of their duty and professionalism.
To me, the realization of the NGSS and Science for All Americans goals place a necessary burden on the science teacher to approach science teaching and pedagogy differently (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990). The educational culture will have to change, and the mindset that science is only for some students has to change. Science class is no longer only a place for science instruction, it is a place to practice science (NGSS Lead States, 2013). A true understanding of this concept will eliminate the deficit mindset and realize that the duty of the science teacher is to ensure that all students learn science, not just the convenient students.
I hope, in this “awareness phase” of NGSS, teachers read and study themselves and truly embrace the power and responsibility of being a professional. I suggest some Roger Bybee and NAP works. Many who are reading this know this already, and you are a “Believer” (as Transforming School Culture explains). My hope is that you dialogue with your “fundamentalist” colleague and set on a mission to change your organization’s culture.
Joseph Calder is a graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is a member of CSTA.
Lemlech, J. K., & Kaplan, S. N. (1990). Learning to Talk about Teaching: Collegiality in Clinical Teacher Education. Action in Teacher Education, 12(1), 13-19.
Muhammad, A. (2009). Transforming School Culture: How to overcome staff division. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, D.C.: Achieve, Inc. on behalf of the twenty-six states and partners that collaborated on the NGSS Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards.
Rodgers, C. R. (2002). Seeing student learning: teacher change and the role of reflection. Harvard Educational Review, 72(2).
Rutherford, F. J., & Ahlgren, A. (1990). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.