You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It #4: What is a Professional, Anyway?

In the last weeks of July, doctor-turned-science teacher Mike Doyle and I wrote nearly fifty emails to each other, wrangling with what professionalism looks like in education, and in its popular comparison, medicine. Below is our electronic conversation, slightly edited for clarity. (We had some talk about fishing and hummingbirds that doesn’t really apply.) My questions and responses are in bold.

First, can you give us a quick synopsis of your unusual road to teaching?

My mom was a teacher, and a good one. {And} I loved pediatrics–a good chunk of pediatrics is teaching. New mothers have been conned into believing they know little about anything (as have the rest of us) by folks trying to sell things.
I spent a lot of time teaching mothers how to be mothers, which is silly, because they know better than I do.

Since I worked in a teaching hospital, I got to teach young adults how to be doctors while I was “teaching” mothers how to be mothers. I was a pretty good doc, and I loved diagnosing diseases, but I really loved the teaching part. (Once a diagnosis is made, the rest is pretty much cookbook anyway….and I got too old for the 2 AM calls.) I knew I liked adolescents from my work, so teaching high school made sense.

Did your work in the projects help you become a better teacher?

Yes, yes, yes….

You see what kids need to do to survive, and you retract your claws a bit in the classroom.
You see the resilience, and you push a little harder in the classroom.
You see love flourish in a world more awful than you can imagine, and you love more in the classroom.
You see community in a world that the rest of the world pretends does not exist, you strive for community in the classroom.

Does life outside of the classroom matter in the pedagogical universe? Of course.

Someone who goes straight from HS to college back to high school cannot know enough (beyond the subject matter) to be as effective a teacher as someone who’s been out of school a bit.

I may be stretching it a bit–it might just be that I was too immature at 25 to teach, and others more mature than me can do it at that age. Heck, my cooperating teacher was a star. In general, though, I think a wee bit of experience outside the classroom goes a long way when you go back into the classroom.

Here’s the thing–once you’ve seen someone shot to death, and a few of my patients did (as well as me), doing your homework (especially the busywork kind) seems like a pointless exercise. If you’re going to take a chunk of a child’s time, you better make it worthwhile. Few things more corrupt than wasting a child’s time to advance your own career.

A great deal of talk is going around now about the lack of professionalism inherent in teaching; many folks point medicine as a models. What do you see, having been in both fields?

Ah, dangerous ground… I keep getting hung up on the definition. Plenty of teachers act professionally, maybe even the majority. But they don’t have to–so I’m stuck.
If I were pressed, I’d say it breaks down to a few major components: a) robust professional development and collaboration; b) hours (and pay) above and beyond a blue-collar standard; c) means by which to meaningfully advance in expertise and responsibility within the profession; d) formal, efficient means of oversight and accountability.
Does that help? I really like your line of thought about the majority of teachers acting professionally of their own volition. Would you say the same for the doctors you’ve worked with?

I agree with a, c, and d–I think the teaching profession gets hung up on b.

I’ll get back to the teacher/doc comparison soon, but I think that it’s the “hours (and pay) above and beyond a blue-collar standard” that confuses the teacher profession. Those themselves are not professional goals, but, alas, have become so in our industry. I made less per hour as a doc than I do as a teacher, but it matters not. I make less than a pipe-fitter now.

In medicine, a fellow doc could be called out by other docs if the doc behaved in a way that jeopardized care. We watched each other, we worked intimately with each other, and our results were obvious. We knew who was best at diagnostic, at therapy, at talking to families. In medicine, the pay was only haphazardly attached to ability, and it was not attached to specific hours (beyond specified clinic/ED/neonatal duties).

Now, I get unions. I know why we need them, and how they have afforded us liveable wages and decent benefits. A few teachers, however, take the contract literally. “They only pay me from 7:35 AM to 2:45 PM, so that’s all I’m going to do.”

So teachers need to follow a guild model. We need to develop our own certification process. We need to keep up our skills. We need tests more vigorous than the Praxis. We need to take the tests more than once a career. We need a much longer apprenticeship than the one we have now. We need to criticize (and protect) each other more than we do now. We need to protect our students from intrusions that hurt them.

(If pediatricians knew that certain vaccines were not worth the risks, the American Academy of Pediatrics would say so–vociferously. They would stop the practice. If teachers are ever convinced that the testing is hurting the kids, would they (as a group) refuse to give the tests?)

There’s a whiff of anti-professionalism in our world. Teachers who… immerse themselves in a vocation that can (and does) eat some of us up, are sometimes held up as examples of what not to be.

I get that, too. And maybe teaching is [in fact] just a craft, or even worse, a bureaucratic position. A lot of teachers (but again, emphatically, not most) approach teaching this way, and so long as the NEA, AFT, NJEA, and the faculty lounge chorus see this as acceptable, we will never truly be professionals in the same way docs are.

Can you give some examples?

If a doc screws up, it becomes a spectacle at a Morbidity/Mortality Conference. Tempers rise. Alternate courses are discussed. Docs are not gentle, nor should they be–lives are at stake.

At teacher faculty meetings, politeness rules. We applaud each other’s good works, special lessons, grants, etc. We never say–“Hey, you really stunk up the science wing with that lousy lesson–what possessed you to come up with such schlock?” I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a good thing–but in a profession, you are accountable to others in your profession. Doctors get suspended. Doctors lose licenses. When was the last time a teacher got suspended by his peers for incompetence?

There’s a scene in Bull Durham when Crash Davis, a perpetual minor leaguer who works hard at his craft, berates a phenom up and coming pitcher Nuke.LaLoosh, for his lack of respect for the game:

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How come you don’t like me?
Crash Davis: Because you don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem.

Too many of us do not respect the profession as something outside of ourselves. Until we do, we’ll never be considered professionals.

We all know that a seven hour day doesn’t cut it in teaching, particularly in high-needs schooling situations– the pundits who push longer school days and higher amounts of working hours are speaking from a basis of fact there. And yet, teachers– not only literalists, but strong and responsible teachers– resist those extended hours being mandated via contract or administration. What do you think is going on there? Who’s right? (and yes, that’s intended to be a provocative formation of the question.)

The ideal teacher is one who loves the craft, who loves kids. If you love both, you will spend an extraordinary amount of time doing your job. The mere act of spending 60-80 hours a week in the classroom, however, does not make one a professional or even effective.

I know phenomenal musicians who’ll play a show, then when everyone else leaves, keep playing because they love it. If I tell a child he must practice guitar the same number of hours as those who get real good at it (because they love it), the child is not going to become a better player simply because of the mandated hours.

If you’re working a gazillion hours to look good, or to satisfy your admin, you’re wasting time. If you’re creating lessons and putting together ideas and all of a sudden you look up and are surprised 3 hours just passed, well, you’re a teacher. The good ones work a lot of hours, true, but not on a clock. Heck, I love reading about teaching, talking with others about teaching, and I love teaching itself. The moment someone says you must put X hours in a week, though, I rebel, partly because I’m cantankerous, but also partly because anyone who mandates a specific number of prep hours doesn’t get how effective teaching works.

Is it as simple as the extrinsic/intrinsic split for you? Your comments seem to trend in that direction. If teachers aren’t working for the love of it, they aren’t true professionals?

Two different (really different) issues. Ultimately it’s the extrinsic that defines the profession.
[Now] I do think the majority [of teachers] are intrinsically motivated, but the majority is not enough to carry the day–just about everyone involved would need to be infused with the spirit to make a true guild (with high standards, a vetting process, and a mechanism for booting out those who consistently fail to meet the standards set by the guild).

The unions, as critical as they are, short circuit the process–can you imagine any union allowing the teachers to set standards that might preclude current union members?

The pathetic thing is that the unions (AFT/NEA) are on the verge of allowing outside forces to determine who’s qualified to teach in public schools. That…unmasks the lack of own accountability within our profession.

And let’s suppose [even] 55% of teachers today would like to form a professional guild, with standards set by teachers. At this stage of the game, how would that work?

We have various advanced teacher certificates (e.g., MATs, IB); unless the vast majority of teachers pursue common aims, not much will change as a group so long as these certifications remain voluntary.

I think the issue is confounded by a lack of consensus on just what the heck we’re trying to accomplish in the classroom.

We seem to be moving towards questions of whether teacher preparation is significant and/or selective enough.

Other countries have this down pat; then again, I think America is unique in not only in its individualism, but its cultural emphasis on profit. Both these things certainly have their influence in teacher preparation programs in a way that they do not in medicine, it seems. (Or do they?)

Medicine has its fair share of “American” schools overseas that have lower qualifications in the sense that they are less competitive–Ross University, for instance, is explicitly for profit, run by DeVry.

If the selection process for teachers became more stringent, you’d get (almost by default, no?) more highly qualified teachers, whatever that means. Again, a big part of the problem is that we do not know as a country just what we want to do with schools. Compounding the issue is the historic separation between a classic liberal arts education and education college. Makes no sense.

if the teacher education/certification process became as involved and challenging as becoming a doctor, what would happen to the teaching pool, do you think?

You would then have a shrinking pool of teachers, and salaries would go up. Maybe.

The one big thing that separates medicine from teaching is the commitment you need to make up front to become a physician–a minimum of 4 years undergrad, then 4 years of medical school, then a minimum of 3 years in residency, which used to be brutal, and is still very difficult. Meanwhile, alternate route teachers can drop in on a school with minimum training, and even those of us with traditional training have a relatively short student teacher stint. Something as simple as making student teaching last a year instead of 4 months might make a difference.

What human qualities does medicine’s rigor select for– both positive and negative? What did you see in your colleagues?  How do those qualities compare and contrast to teachers in the profession you know?

Medicine selects for tenaciousness and reasonable intelligence. (You don’t have to be brilliant, but you do need to be able to think on your feet–not sure that’s a requirement for education school.) The downside is that many folks in medicine had a monomaniacal approach to get where they got, though most of the docs I knew had, in retrospect, quite varied interests and passions.

The other problem with medicine (and also one of its strengths as a profession) is the brutal nature of the residency system–you are immersed in the culture pretty much all your waking hours. People died. Good docs spend a lot of time reflecting on how they might have altered outcomes. Good teachers do the same thing, of course, but the whole death thing does put a bit of weight on those in medicine.

4 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It #4: What is a Professional, Anyway?

  1. When we were on strike last year, a colleague and I used the word ‘guild,’ and how we longed for this instead of union, and the connotations of guild. So, I just pretend that’s what I’m participating in—growing from apprentice to master craftsman.

    Two of my favorite writers sharing a blog post – WOW! How do I join your guild?

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