We have a lot of ideas of what a teacher should do, but rarely do we pause and reflect to think about what a teacher should be. What makes a teacher a professional and what constitutes their professionalism in their profession? Upon initial thought, I defined teacher professionalism as something that “refers to the ethical and work conduct expected of teachers in the classroom and in the school. As the frontliners of delivering education, teachers are expected to be a good role model for students and reflect and instill the good values of a productive citizen into their students. Lastly, they must adhere to the set of qualifications required from them in order to be a teacher (i.e. bachelor’s degree, teaching certificate, LET passer).” Sounds just about right? But interestingly, my definition embodies a very conservative and traditional meaning of teacher professionalism…one that places the teacher as the duty-bearer of reproducing the existing social relations and labor power in society and as a worker that has no or little agency to maneuver within the organizational structure and societal structure they are embedded within.
No doubt teachers and the teaching profession are deeply embedded in the social, political, and cultural circumstances of the time. With added knowledge on what constitutes professionalism, I agree on the following criteria most discussed in literature (David, 2000) and as expounded by Quong (2016):
- Schools and teachers provide important public service through the transfer of skills, knowledge, understanding and technology in order to hone productive citizens;
- Theoretically and grounded expertise through education and professional learning and license;
- Organization and regulation required for recruitment and discipline purposes; and
- Individual autonomy (judgment) for effective practice.
Individual autonomy is the most crucial — as this is constrained by a centralized curriculum, school mandates, and other means of organizational control over individual teaching practice and pedagogy. However, there is always a space for contestation and resistance — for teachers can tailor their own teaching and forward their own ideology inside the classroom. Sadly, when they step out of the classroom, there are many societal forces at play — and unless their pedagogy translates to good student performance, even the most well-meaning teacher with the students’ interests at heart will bow down to the interests of the school and the state.
For me, what does it mean to be a teacher as a worker of the state or private interest and as a worker whose responsibility is to maintain the status quo of labor and social relations and inequalities? For me, a teacher as a professional must be collaborative and collegial, activist, flexible and progressive, responsive to change, self-regulatory, and enquiry-oriented (Demirkasımoğlu, 2010). The even bigger question is how can we work to change the system within the system? What does it mean to be a teacher who works for the system but contributes to its reform and change?
David, C. (2000). Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching. London: Taylor&Francis Books Ltd.
Demirkasımoğlu, N. (2010). Defining “Teacher Professionalism” from different perspectives. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 9, 2047-2051.
Quong, T. D. (2016). The dynamics of teacher professionalism in an Asian context. Paper presented the Asia Leadership Roundtable 2016, Singapore.