Is Teaching a Profession, a Job, or a Calling? (Part 1)

Is Teaching a Profession, a Job, or a Calling? (Part 1)

It would be overstating things to say that how we define teaching is a hot topic.  In light of teacher shortages and high teacher attrition, things like cultural definitions can seem a bit fringe. But I think it’s a question that bears some careful consideration because of those attrition rates, especially among new teachers,  and in light of the downward trend of college students choosing to go into education.  This question of how we define teaching sent me down several paths that I had not anticipated; it’s a rich space for both debate and for reflecting on how we value, train, support, and compensate the people who educate our children.

There are three ways teaching is viewed culturally: teaching as a profession, teaching as a job, and teaching as a calling.  The three are not mutually exclusive — it is possible to see teaching as both a profession and calling.  Each has specific characteristics that proponents use to validate the label, but each has issues that undermine them as well.

So let’s look first at teaching as a profession:  teachers are (mostly and traditionally) college educated and trained to both deliver instruction and evaluate that delivery. Ideally, they are also trained to differentiate instruction to effectively reteach in areas where the student has not attained mastery.  A key aspect of teaching as a profession  is the is long and intensive academic preparation to teach — 4 years of college, multiple classroom observation and experience requirements, and a semester-long student teaching requirement.  For secondary teachers, there will also be a major in a particular field of study in addition to the teaching courses.  For elementary teachers, a broad knowledge of social studies, history, math, science, reading, literature and literary interpretation and the strategies for delivering instruction in these disparate areas is necessary.  In a perfect world, new teachers are also assigned a mentor to help them navigate their first year or two of teaching  — interpreting curriculum, finding and using resources, suggested strategies for teaching, grouping students, managing the classroom — and facilitate reflection to improve what they do in the classroom.  In some states, there may also be a test of some sort either pre- or post- program to assess the general knowledge of the prospective teacher.  The entire process, including 2 years of mentoring, is 6 years.

The best argument for teaching as a profession is that all this training and preparation directly affects  the success of the teacher.  Since the pandemic, many schools (and even whole states) have struggled to fill teaching positions.  As a means of addressing this problem, many states have made it possible for less-prepared, less-educated people to step into teaching by loosening the requirements, often significantly.  Several states have removed the requirement of a degree or allowed people with degrees but no teacher-training to step into classrooms. Some states have allowed veterans to teach, whether they have degrees or not. Several states allow people with Bachelor’s degrees to teach if they begin a certification program at the same time.  But here’s the thing:  the highest attrition rate for new teachers is among those who enter teaching with no training behind them. This group is 2.5 times more likely to quit after the first year than those who have adequate training.  Can anyone do this job?  Maybe. I’ve known a few who entered teaching in non-traditional ways and were successful, competent educators (though none of them came into education without a college degree).  But there are many, many more who wash out in the first year because they simply don’t have the training necessary to do what can be very difficult work.*

Detractors of teaching as a profession often base their argument on these people who enter teaching without a traditional program behind them, but since we’ve already covered that, I want to address a different argument that I had never heard before and which caught me off guard a bit. There are those who say teaching is not and will never be profession because teachers don’t have the power to make all the decisions both at the classroom and the school level.  I saw this referred to as “professional autonomy” and the basic idea was that teachers will be full professionals when  schools are run by teachers who make almost all decisions regarding curriculum, instruction, and selection and retention of personnel.

I have some thoughts here.

First, that’s lot of responsibility for teachers who are also actively teaching.  It also presumes a level of ability — even expertise — in things for which teachers are not explicitly trained. For example, selecting personnel might seem fairly simple but can involve hours of sifting through resumes, developing interview questions, meeting candidates, watching them teach a sample lesson (and districts should absolutely be doing this) and then ranking candidates.  I’ve done this and it takes a lot of time; it would not be compatible with a full time job teaching.  And teachers, with all the goodwill in the world, may not be great judges of who would be a good fit, who seems to have a good grasp of material, who seems well prepared, what to listen for in an interview or look for on a resume, etc., though they can absolutely be partners in these decisions.

Second, curriculum is determined largely by the state, at least in terms of overall targets. In this, we’re not actually looking at state standards; instead, we are looking at the state test and what the test expects students to know or be able to do.  District curriculum can and should be a lot wider (cover more content with greater rigor) and a lot more specific, with clear targets for mastery articulated K-12. And district curriculum must be district curriculum — no school within the district can be allowed to go rogue and teach whatever they want.  So the overall framework of the curriculum is not now, and likely will not be, in the hands of teachers in an individual school BUT teachers can and should be included in the process to develop district curriculum guides designed to make objectives clear and measurable and to define what mastery looks like. Those guides should also offer suggestions (not requirements) for resources and suggestions for approaching the material (how to teach it), as well as a few activities that might be good choices for practicing and evaluating mastery.  Again, not all teachers are capable of this kind of work, but those that are should be partners in these design decisions.

Third, teachers should have autonomy to choose the resources that best meet their students’ needs and to deliver instruction in whatever ways help their students attain mastery.  CMSi has been in more than 600 districts and I can tell you that this is something many districts — and whole states — get wrong. Some aspects of curriculum must be tightly held, meaning the decision-making rests with the central office.  These decision include things like objectives and mastery definitions and  summative and formative assessments.  This is necessary because allowing a free-for-all in these areas prevents the district from guaranteeing that every child in the district is getting the same learning with the same degree of rigor.  Most districts are good at tightly held stuff; where they go wrong is in holding tightly the things that should be loosely held. This includes things like determining student groups, strategies for delivering content, when to deploy formative assessments, when to reteach, how much time to spend on content, and what resources to use.  Teachers need to be able to deploy their expertise to help kids learn, using whatever resources and methods and time frames get their kids to mastery.  Restricting resources or requiring lock-step pacing shuts down the things good teachers do well and mitigates against them developing expertise as educators. Districts determine the finish line and how success will be measured and teachers determine the best way to get all the kids there.

Another factor that undermines teaching’s professional status is that teachers aren’t compensated like other highly-trained professions.  That’s been covered ad nauseam so I won’t address it here other than to say, if districts value good teaching, they should be prepared to act like they value it in the most obvious and practical way possible — money.  And I feel bound to mention another factor that was cited by Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania. Ingersoll holds that the training and education required to teach aren’t enough to qualify it as a profession in the same company as doctors or lawyers.  In this assessment, he is drawing a direct comparison between length of program and professional status. Doctors on average spend 9-11 years or more in study and training, lawyers spend at least 7.**  In fact, Ingersoll lists several factors that prevent teaching from being a profession:  ““We do not refer to teaching as a profession. It doesn’t have the characteristics of those traditional professions like medicine, academia, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, et cetera. It doesn’t have the pay, the status, the respect, the length of training, so from a scientific viewpoint teaching is not a profession.”  The problem here is that some of these things hinge on public and cultural perception of teaching in the U.S. specifically; in other countries, teaching is very much a profession on a par with doctors and lawyers and is just as respected and compensated accordingly.  Maybe this is over-simplifying, but he seems to be saying that because we don’t regard it as a profession it can’t be a profession.  And if length of training is the critical metric, then wouldn’t any teachers who hold master’s degrees be considered professionals?  I’m going to talk in Part 3 about why I think there is resistance to regarding teaching as a profession; for now, know that this line of thinking has all my Spidey-senses on high alert.

Next up, we’ll look at teaching as a calling.



*Obviously, there are other factors that make teaching difficult — student poverty, school climate, lack of resources, poor pay, lack of community respect, and so on.  And it is true that attrition in schools with a plethora of these problems is significantly higher than in wealthy schools with lots of resources. But interestingly, poor schools that focus on hiring competent, experienced teachers and then value and support those teachers, have lower staff attrition rates.

**I looked up a few other “professions” Ingersoll mentioned to see what their training programs looked like.  Architecture:  5 years undergraduate study, 3 additional years of internship.  Engineering:  4 years to complete the undergraduate program, though many need 5 to complete it.  Dentistry: 4 years of undergrad and 4 years of dental school.  I take issue with the inclusion of academia as a profession because while the nature of the job requires a PhD. but that PhD could be in anything — history, microeconomics, vocal performance, medieval French literature, and so on.   Many of these areas  are wonderful, but they are inescapably niche.  I would argue, too, that engineers designing airplanes and bridges may be substantively different from those designing fish radar systems; though both are engineers, I think the level of respect they receive for their pursuits is going to be somewhat different.

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