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Professionalism: Teachers Taking the Reins

February 15, 2008

By Helterbran, Valeri R

Abstract: It is essential that teachers take a proactive look at their profession and themselves to strengthen areas of professionalism over which they have control. In this article, the author suggests strategies that include collaborative planning, reflectivity, growth in the profession, and the examination of certain personal characteristics. Keywords: collaborative planning, growth, professionalism, reflectivity

Mrs. Jansen is a veteran teacher. She is regarded, almost without exception, as a good teacher who makes learning engaging and productive. She conducts positive and encouraging parent-teacher conferences and is active in her community. It has been years, however, since Mrs. Jansen attended a professional conference or took a class. She considers herself fortunate to teach a foreign language because few people in her school district speak anything but English. She has quipped publicly that because of this, no one would ever know if she was doing her job or not. Mrs. Jansen approached her principal last fall to ask if she could bring her patio lounge chair to school to conduct her preparation period outdoors to “catch a few rays” as she planned her instruction. She also scheduled elective surgery for February, she confided in several peers, to use up her sick days and avoid interfering with summer recreational plans. However, she was happy to accept a stipend for sponsoring a class activity but frequently imposed on others to assist her in carrying out the duties of the sponsorship.

The preceding vignette is a true account of recent events in a northeastern public secondary school. Is Mrs. Jansen a professional? Is her conduct professional? Certainly making learning meaningful and engaging exhibits professionalism, as does reinforcing productive parental relationships. However, failing to continue professional learning throughout her career and an apparent lack of discretion when publicly referring to this shortcoming is detrimental to Mrs. Jansen’s professionalism, as is sunbathing during her planning period, planning her elective surgery on school time, and taking advantage of her colleagues. This brief descriptor highlights the profundity and the complexity of the issue of professionalism in education. Mrs. Jansen is likely to be resolute in asserting the position that she is a professional; others would likely disagree with her.

Teachers often refer to themselves as professionals but recognize that they are typically not afforded similar respect, rewards, or recognition afforded other occupations (Blackwell, Futrell, and Imig 2003; Cheers 2001). Inexplicably, those who provide services to children and youths are often held in lower esteem than those who provide similar services to adults; services for children are perceived as requiring a lesser degree of preparation and expertise (Norris 2004). Paradoxically, teachers are also held to a higher standard of conduct and image because they do work with children- parents’ and communities’ most precious resources. In addition, because almost everyone has experienced some degree of formal education, many believe themselves to be experts on teaching and the learning process.

The perception that anybody can teach is ubiquitous. Because of these societal perceptions teachers may never be accorded the status, respect, and compensation they deserve; however, this should not be a factor in a teacher’s efforts to develop in such ways and to strive for proficiency in professionalism. For far too long, teachers did not take responsibility and ownership for their professionalism (Chase 1998). In this age of the three As (achievement, assessment, and accountability), it is increasingly important that educators renew interest in their existing level of professionalism and refocus attention on strengthening those characteristics considered important over which they have appreciable control.

In this article, through a synthesis of literature germane to the topic coupled with my background of two decades in public school teaching and administration, I will identify and examine four foundational strategies or commitments to encourage the continuous development of professionalism. These include collaborative planning, reflectivity, professional growth, and the examination of personal characteristics.

Professional: What Is in a Word?

Defining the characteristics, qualities, and attitudes of professionalism is problematic. This problem results from the general practice of defining and using the term professional as both a position for which someone is paid and the quality of the performance of one’s job. The literature does not support a universally accepted definition of teacher professionalism. However, Riley (2003) specifies characteristics of true professions as having a societal purpose and obligation, ethical foundation, a degree of regulatory autonomy, an accretion of content knowledge, and agreed- on standards for the entire profession. By extension, being professional involves being able to effectively cope with the challenges and tasks that are inherent in teaching, using the skills, personal and professional experiences, and expertise particular to the profession (Baggini 2005). Some of the aforementioned qualities of professionalism are typically denied to teachers, most notably autonomy in decision making and curriculum development. Faced with prescriptive, teacher-proof curricula and instructional strategies driven by politically mandated forces, teachers by necessity must make a conscientious effort to build professional capacity. Fortunately, most if not all elements contributing to one’s overall professionalism can be learned or strengthened in varying degrees. Developing elements of professionalism is a matter of awareness, commitment, and practice.

The phenomenon of tagging many teaching activities as professional, as observed by Rotigel (1972), continues without abatement today. For example, educators engage in professional meetings, conferences, development, and negotiations. Naming almost everything professional runs the risk, however, of being perceived as promoting or enhancing group or individual selfinterests rather than being altruistic and public-service oriented. It is a near certainty from a societal point of view that without a learner- centered orientation, being professional is wasted energy, mere window dressing. Does it really matter how others perceive teachers or how teachers perceive each other if students are not at the center of educational practice?

Teachers themselves are often at a loss to identify those things that factor into their own professionalism. In a recent discussion between myself and K-12 teachers seeking their master of education degrees, the following were typical responses when asked what they believe contributes to their professionalism:

* Doing my job

* Loving to be with and around children

* Dressing well

* Cutting back on “college-speak” (that is, slang and speech affectations common to informal speech)

* Not calling in sick on professional development days

* Doing my own lesson plans

* Having amicable relationships with parents

* Being respectful toward my students

* Doing what I am told to do

* Getting good scores on the state tests

* Providing fun, engaging activities for my students

* Having a college degree

Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked about attributes of professionalism, preservice or novice teachers tend to focus on issues of general competence, loving children, attire, and elements of speech and vocabulary. Veteran teachers generally speak more in terms of wisdom, such as being “conscientious, discreet, informed, and respectful” (Gill 2005, 2). Although there may be a degree of truth in all of the statements offered by these teachers, they also provide evidence of superficiality and incompleteness. This further indicates the need for teachers to better understand the importance of professionalism and what strategies they can employ to cultivate their own professionalism at every point in their careers.

To that end, I offer four powerful and mutually interdependent approaches below for teachers to consider when determining how to best infuse those elements into their teaching and the performance of related duties.

Strategy One: Collaborative Planning

Teachers command a “central role of deciding what, where, when and how their students . . . learn” (Goodlad 1984, 109). The planning process, arguably the heart of the teaching practice, is a matter of quality defined as more than teachers merely sharing information or experiences but developing the ability to separate poor practices from effective ones with an eye toward student achievement (Schmoker 2004). In addition, Stigler and Hiebert (1999) tell us that many teachers do not prepare lesson plans at all or not around student goals. To strengthen this apparent deficiency, collaborative planning may offer a venue to encourage responsibility and ownership in the instructional process, simultaneously providing a built-in sounding board to discuss lesson plans before and after they are taught. However, when teachers plan, they tend to do so in near isolation (Wilms 2003). Educators tend to accept planning in isolation as an occupational inevitability and as Rettig et al. (2003) observed, it is preferable to many. The result, however, in most cases is an environment in which instruction is shrouded in secrecy and too often relegated to activities found on the Internet or in textbook series supplements (Ediger 2004; Ornstein 1997; Sardo- Brown 1990). The focus of this type of planning tends to be to reproduce past planning, not to strengthen or improve it. Feedback is essential to effective learning and teaching. Because many schools lack existing structures for collaboration, teachers should seek out receptive colleagues to plan together, work through day-to- day problems and occurrences, and debrief instructional and curricular matters on a regular basis. The most effective collaboration is teacher driven, spontaneous, and voluntary (Leonard and Leonard 1999). In short, teachers must become interpreters of their own instruction, which is a hallmark of professional teaching. Teamwork is hard work-but well worth the effort in promoting student achievement. Collaborative planning is an essential ingredient of being professional in one’s work and provides the perfect segue to the next strategy, reflectivity.

Strategy Two: Reflectivity

According to York-Barr et al. (2001), “reflective practice is a deliberate pause to assume an open perspective, to allow for higher- level thinking processes . . . for [the purpose of] examining beliefs, goals, and practices, to gain new or deeper understanding that lead[s] to actions to improve learning for students” (6). Reflectivity can involve seeking insight into one’s instruction, classroom management, relationships with colleagues and students, and a host of other topics that are important to a teacher. It is deeply associated with personal and professional development. At its core, reflection involves active self-evaluation and, if participated in collaboratively, effective social and communication skills. Schon (1983) initiated the awareness of reflection as sound educational practice, prompting a host of subsequent research in the literature. As an example, Goodson (1997) observed that great teachers typically have one important quality in common; they continuously work to strengthen and refine their practice and their lives by way of reflection. These teachers try new things, work at what is not working well, and generally think through problems. Teachers who come to understand the merit and importance of reflectivity deepen their practice and enjoy the prospect of becoming an increasingly effective and professional teacher.

Reflectivity is a commitment to teaching, the self, and the learner. It involves the ability to examine one’s own actions and the actions of others. It is also closely tied to being a good listener, having the ability to prioritize, and at times having the ability to see oneself as others do (York-Barr et al. 2001). Simply reflecting on one’s practice is not sufficient. Remember Santayana’s (philosopher, poet, and cultural critic) well-known statement: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Wisdom Quotes 2006). This accurately describes those teachers who have multiple years of experience to their credit but consistently function in a first-year teaching mode, whether a product of reading, writing, talking, thinking, or combinations of these strategies. There are many benefits of long-term critical reflection. They include the development of a new and more positive perspective on children and their needs, educational philosophy, heightened power and professional voice, deeper knowledge of self, improved communication and relationships with others, and strengthened instructional strategies (DeMulder and Rigsby 2003). Reflection is undertaken with the expectation that an intentional action will be undertaken. The practice of reflection cannot be mandated; it contributes to one’s level of professionalism and is, again, a matter of teacher ownership and commitment.

Strategy Three: Growth

The process of education itself should be life affirming and enhancing and contribute to the individual’s overall quality of life (Phoenix 2002). If teachers believe this to be a worthy goal for students, why then would it not be a goal for educators as well? Hiebert and Stigler (2000) assert that schools are places for teachers to learn but that this is a concept almost lost in contemporary American schools. Schools do offer opportunities for teacher growth, but teachers who put their growth quotient exclusively in the hands of district- provided professional development may be doing themselves a great disservice. Teachers need high-quality, sustained professional development at the beginning of-and throughout-their careers. Unfortunately, only 12- 27 percent of teachers in 2000 believed that the professional development provided by their districts actually improved their teaching (National Center for Educational Statistics 2001). If district-provided professional development is not matched with teacher needs to promote student achievement (Lee 2004/2005), it becomes necessary for teachers at every level of experience to take an active role in improving content, pedagogy, and other areas of effective teaching that require continuous improvement (Kent 2004).

It is unlikely that teachers can be consummate professionals without continuously learning throughout their careers. This can be accomplished individually via earning advanced degrees, attending conferences, and keeping current with research and content knowledge or via an equally powerful strategy of working cooperatively and collaboratively with colleagues in professional learning groups in a school or district to effect positive change. One method to enhance professional growth, for example, is to commit to an inquiry-based instructional approach in the classroom. Through action research, teachers choose a topic or challenge for themselves, “study it in their own classrooms, and analyze emergent data to pose their own solutions” (Helterbran and Fennimore 2004, 270). Doing so offers a systematic approach to pursue those questions that arise in all classrooms. Assuming an inquiry-based approach can supplement district-provided professional development, but more important, it further contributes to teachers’ ownership of their learning and growth in the profession.

Strategy Four: Revisiting Personal Characteristics

Some specific personal characteristics are integral in the overall portrait of a professional teacher. Vital aspects of this element of professionalism include attitude and role modeling. A teacher’s attitude-be it positive, negative, or indifferent- pervades all that he or she says and does. It defines the difference between teaching as a passion and lifelong commitment and teaching as a fallback. The ingredient of attitude involves confidence, initiative, personal investment in teaching and children, and enthusiasm in accomplishing the tasks of teaching (Riley 2003). Those who exude the stance that their students are important to them and that if students do not learn, they have not taught, exemplify the positive mind-set that teaching is the best possible and most important occupation. These are the teachers who pride themselves on achieving excellence in all aspects of the art and practice of teaching. This attitude, coupled with adding to one’s knowledge base and skills, researching and practicing effective pedagogical strategies, and continually refining one’s interpersonal and social proficiencies, adds immeasurable cachet to the perception and reality of one’s degree of professionalism.

Role modeling also involves a pastiche of qualities and behaviors. It includes but is not limited to preparedness, punctuality, proper attire, appropriate and correct written and oral communications, and contribution to the school community as a whole. Role modeling is an ever-present responsibility because it occurs in day-to-day interactions with all participants in the school and community. How a teacher teaches, treats students, and interacts with others often speaks louder than words. Teachers are judged by their actions and words and often are ascribed the label of professional or unprofessional solely because of this element of teacher character (Tichenor and Tichenor 2004/2005). Here again, the examination of their personal qualities provides teachers with a window for awareness of how they are perceived and an opportunity to alter course.

Conclusion

Identifying and engaging in professional strategies to develop one’s own level of professionalism is important to the overall understanding of this topic and may be the lynchpin that makes the difference in determining whether or not a teacher is a professional. Teachers must decide who they are and how they want to be perceived in the classroom. Becoming increasingly professional implies a commitment to change, to strengthen and to grow as a person and as an educator. It is equally apparent that it is imperative for teachers, individually and collectively, to consider what they can do to ensure that they are practicing the art and craft of teaching in a manner that is of service to children’s achievement and society.

What is certain is that being a professional is a quest, a career- long endeavor and challenge, as Seifert (1999) observed in the following:

Professionalism is a process more than an outcome-a way of encountering new students and new classroom problems and of finding meaning and solutions to them as you grow. It is not a “thing” worn like a piece of clothing; at no time will you have become professional once and for all. (95)

A more thorough understanding of the attributes of professionalism can serve as an introduction for preservice teachers and a reminder to both novice and seasoned teachers to ensure that they conduct themselves as professionally as possible. Professionals take ownership of their job responsibilities, assignments, and personal conduct. Being a professional is a matter of personally emulating and modeling the qualities we demand of our students and colleagues as scholars, contributors, and owners of personal destiny. REFERENCES

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Valeri R. Helterbran, EdD, is an associate professor in the Department of Professional Studies in Education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana. Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Jan/Feb 2008

(c) 2008 Clearing House, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.




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