“Professionalism” is wrecking our schools

“Professionalism” has become a mantra for teachers, administrators, university professors, and virtually anyone else who considers him or herself an expert on education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks the answer to improving education involves greater evaluation of teacher performance.  No Child Left Behind measures the professional bona fides of a teacher by the test performances of his or her students.  University schools of education want teachers to take more professional development classes, something which incidentally fattens college coffers.

What education needs is less professionalism.  Why?  Because the more “professional” teachers become, the more distant they are from their core values as human beings.  They also become more formulaic in their practices and rely less on the instincts that are fundamental to establishing interpersonal relationships.

I have had the good fortune to see healthy teaching environments.  Not everything works perfectly, but in these environments, the central focus is on benefiting students.  Key characteristics of these environments are:

  1. Teachers begin the day with a desire to make learning productive and enjoyable for each student.  They aren’t thinking about administrators or somebody else’s standards.
  2. Teachers end the day by assessing their own performance and brainstorming ways to further utilize successful techniques and change the practices that don’t work.
  3. Teachers don’t look to administrators or educational theorists to determine how well they’re doing.  They measure themselves by the standards that they have set for themselves and the progress that students in their classes are making.
  4. They recognize that student progress is not easily measured, and that efforts to persistently measure it diminish the joy of learning.

On the contrary, teachers who are expected to instruct six hours a day, coach or advise extra-curricular activities, grade papers, plan for the next day, and do the “make work” required of them by administrators, are left with no time in their day.  They often get stressed, bitter and burned out.

Teachers who are in the classroom half a day and spend the other half doing everything necessary to make the next day’s classes go well do a better job of serving their student’s educational needs, as well as maintaining their own personal balance and sanity.  Their evenings are free, like those of most physicians and attorneys.

What I am suggesting is nothing new. In fact, it is old.  Until the 1960s, teaching was considered a “calling,” and those who entered it had a self-defined commitment.  Not all were warm and fuzzy or even as knowledgeable in their subject areas as they could have been.  However, the system they worked in allowed skilled and bright individuals to flourish as teachers, without sacrificing the personal identity that gave them their initial desire to teach.

Hiring and firing teachers is a perennial issue.  These are hard calls to make, and they are not always scientific.  Intuition is involved.

What we can do, which didn’t happen prior to the 1960s, is to properly remunerate teachers, provide them with a full range of benefits, and do everything to improve their working conditions.  That means that, as a society, we need to allocate much more money for teachers.  But we have a ready-made source of financing:  eliminating the parasitic jobs that enable so-called professionals tell teachers what to do.  If those people still want to be in education, there will always be classrooms where they will be needed.