It is up to teachers to define and advance the profession

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Constant reflection and personal growth, together with the desire to learn, are key to the development of the workforce

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." (Lewis Carroll, 1872)

The somewhat surprising proposal by the incoming chief inspector in England that Ofsted inspectors will in future comment on how far teachers "look professional" provoked me to reflect further about professionalism in teaching. Is the concept of "professionalism" helpful or has it become almost meaningless?

Increasingly, it seems to me that "professional" has become a Humpty Dumpty word which can be used to support whatever case the user chooses. Debate around McCormac, for example, often cites professionalism in support of opposite points of view.

Professional behaviour can be used to describe dedication and quality in almost any walk of life. Thus the plumber and the doctor can both be seen as being "professional" in what they do. This general meaning is a long way from one based upon the specific characteristics of a "profession" in terms of things like unique expertise, controlled access, extended education, self-regulation and ethical behaviour.

Where does this leave teaching as a profession? Both the McCrone and McCormac reports linked teachers' conditions of service directly to what it means to be professional, so it is important to probe this question. Like doctors, lawyers or accountants, teachers provide a direct personal service in circumstances which demand deep expertise and high levels of integrity. The essence of professionalism at an individual level is, I believe, about dedication, learning and trust. It is about what you do and how you do it, rather than who you are. It is more about responsibilities than rights.

At the collective level, professions have a central role in defining the nature of the job. Over the past few decades, teachers have increasingly been seen - or even see themselves - as "implementers" or "deliverers" of someone else's view of the "what" and even the "how" of teaching, rather than as shapers of policy and practice. This trend is partly a reflection of political impatience with an education system which is slow to change and in which too many children fail to succeed. As a result, key educational decisions are often taken outside what would traditionally have been seen as the professional sphere. How might the future be different? Indeed, why should it be different?

I argued in Teaching Scotland's Future that we need a revitalised approach to professionalism in teaching. That was not a view based on blind support for the sectional interest of teachers, but because I firmly believe that our young people's futures will be better served by such a revitalised profession. I also believe that the vast majority of teachers both subscribe to and practise much of what is needed.

The signal contribution of a teacher is to be an expert in learning, inspiring young people to want to learn, helping them to develop as individuals, and creating the scaffolding for success in relation to individual needs. The teacher cannot be the exclusive source of learning, but should be the guardian of the process itself and how it relates to young people as individuals. The teaching profession should not fear the idea of harnessing expertise, from whatever source, which will enrich the learning and the well-being of the young people in their charge. The profession should have the confidence to collaborate.

Professional growth across a career does not happen by chance or by simple longevity; it requires constant reflection and a desire to learn: from colleagues, from ideas and from research. The goal of a "Master's profession" is not about status, but about a demonstrable commitment to engaging with the more complex aspects of the teaching and learning process and to applying new understanding in the classroom. The 21st- century teacher takes personal responsibility for his or her own learning and does not wait to be "trained".

Educational innovation across the world is too often seen in the classroom as remote, imposed and inadequately explained. As a result, we collectively fail to realise the putative benefits of the original intention in the actual experience of many young people. We need to engage the profession much more fully and creatively in the identification, development and design of change. Curriculum for Excellence is predicated on such an approach, but its potential will only be realised if the implications for the teaching profession are fully grasped and acted upon.

We have a strong and very capable teaching profession in Scotland. We also have high ambitions for the future of Scottish education. It is vital that discussions in the weeks and months ahead do not descend into protracted trench warfare, but build the kind of revitalised professionalism which will both enhance the job satisfaction of our teachers and serve the best interests of our young people.

That means that government, national agencies, employers and teacher unions should further embed enhanced professional development and embrace greater flexibility. All members of the National Partnership Group, charged with taking forward Teaching Scotland's Future, have a huge responsibility to provide and sustain necessary vision, drive, support and public assurance in difficult circumstances.

Professionalism is not about appearance: it is about behaviour. Its focus is always on the learner and that focus will matter more than ever in the period to come. As Humpty Dumpty also said, "we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next!"

Graham Donaldson is a former senior chief inspector of HMIE and author of `Teaching Scotland's Future'.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today