Sunday, 21 February 2016

Teacher Journey (Part 1) -Teacher Professionalism

Teacher professionalism, being professional or being part of a profession are widely used in literature and policy statements in Scotland. However, have we as a ’profession’ ever stopped the think what does this means? Do we all have a similar definition? Or are there distinct and competing definitions? The discourse around professionalism is not helpful as there is also contention in the literature around the meaning of ‘profession’ and ‘professionalism’, it is acknowledged by Kennedy, Barlow & Macgregor that these concepts are “multifaceted”  and “contested” ( (2012:4).

Here are some definitions of professional.
From Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
The competence or skill expected of a professional or the practising of an activity, especially a sport, by professional rather than amateur players.

The Australian Council of Professionals 2004
A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and uphold themselves to, and are accepted by, the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level and who are prepared to exercise this knowledge and these skills in the interest of others

Business Dictionary
Person formally certified by a professional body of belonging to a specific profession by virtue of having completed a required course of study and/or practice. A person whose competence can usually be measured against an established set of standards or a person who has achieved an acclaimed level of proficiency in a calling or trade.

So, “Is professionalism a ‘thing’ or is it a process? I would argue that it has meaning in both descriptions. The ‘thing’ as a static element for me would be the suite of standards held by GTCS for all practitioners in Scotland. In addition, the Code of Professionalism and Conduct which outlines the characteristics and code of conduct which the individual complies with, to uphold to the status of themselves as a credible professional and also the profession in holistic terms, in the sense of what ‘we’ stand for and this is how ‘we’ behave.

Next, a question asked by Kennedy, Barlow & Macgregor (2012:4) “Is professionalism owned by individual professionals or is it owned by the entire occupational group?” Again I would argue that this is a false dichotomy and the real answer lies within both the individual and the collective. Teachers have a responsibility to meet expected standards, set by themselves but this must also be within the realms of what is perceived to be acceptable within the ‘profession’ and the public as stated in the definition from the Australian Council of Professionals (above).

Finally, Kennedy, Barlow & Macgregor(2012:4)  also posed this question “Is professionalism something that provides strength, identity and a moral compass for an occupational group or is it something that can be used on or against the professional group as a means of exerting external influence and control?” The idea of a moral compass, is idealistic but does chime with the ideal of vocational purpose which is often aligned with teaching. The second part of the definition is more about a control mechanism, where the use of the term ‘professionalism’ has become a tool to shape education policy.

Models of professionalism
Sachs (2001) distinction of professionalism, which was then extended by Whitty (2008), discussed a “spectrum” of professionalism with the polar extremes being managerial and democratic. Whitty (2008) extended this to a four model structure;

The traditional model is discussed as being more led by a list of characteristics and a code of conduct.

The managerial model as discussed by Kennedy, Barlow & Macgregor involves professionalism being used as a means of “control over teacher behaviour” (2012:3) There is an expectation of “compliance”, and professionalism is measured using targets with business influenced criteria, led by “externally imposed concept and accountability” (Kennedy, Barlow & Macgregor, 2012).

Democratic professionalism is described as being the “enactment of principle of equality and social justice” (Kennedy, Barlow & Macgregor, 2012)an internal autonomy model which is “critical, politically engaged and [a] proactive attempt to promote social justice through professional actions”
Each model has its own strengths and issues dependant on whose lens you are using to scrutinise them.

The final model is the Collaborative model in which Whitty (2008) talks about “the growing emphasis on inter-professional working”.

The Scottish Context
The challenge for education profession is that teacher identity in Scotland is currently being re-conceptualized.  A new kind of professionalism is evolving which Evetts (2012) describes as a ‘hybrid professionalism’, encompassing the professional wish for empowerment, innovation and autonomy but recognizes the public interest need for quality assurance and accountability. This involves teachers as practitioners becoming more research enriched and engaging in enquiry, which can lead to transformative learning and is congruent with the act of ‘becoming’, Sachs (2003). By offering guidance on practitioner enquiry GTCS supports the Cochrane-Smith & Lyttle (2009) disposition of ‘enquiry as stance’ where GTCS challenges practitioners to question their practice and adopt an ‘critical habit of mind”.

From a presentation delivered at the ICSEI conference in Glasgow 2016, Finn discussed a good professional;
Delivers a good service to those who rely on their professionalism and....on their skills, knowledge and expertise being up to date and relevant to their need.
Professional practices involves more than just delivering what the ‘client’ thinks they want. It goes beyond delivery as the professional also influences and to some extent shapes the client expectation. The client/professional relationship creates a transactional basis to the relationship and becomes more accountability driven rather than values based. Biesta (2010) argues that we have moved into a bureaucratic rather than democratic culture of accountability systems where we come to value what we can easily measure, data, rather than measuring what we really value, learning.

Finally we can refer to a list of characteristics adapted from Burbules and Dennison (1991) by Finn & Hamilton (2012) to help us to identify what we may mean by a teaching professional in 2016.
A teaching professional will;
  • o    have clearly defined practical and theoretical knowledge
  • o    have professional autonomy and accountability
  • o    prioritisation of service to others before economic benefits
  • o    be commitment to keep learning and improving throughout a career
  • o    have aspirations towards optimal learning performance
  • o    collaborate with other professionals

 So I would say we that we haven’t got to an agreed working definition yet, but perhaps with Teacher Professionalism as a key driver within the National Improvement Framework, we as a ‘profession’ have an opportunity to define what we mean by professionalism and the values that underpin our contribution to young people’s lives in Scotland.


Biesta, G.J.J.  (2010) Good Education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy: Boulder and London: Paradigm

Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (2009) Inquiry as Stance: practitioner Research for the Next Generation, New York:Teachers College Press

Evetts, J. (2012) Professionalism in Turbulent time: Changes, Chellenges and opportunties Keynote Presentation to professional Practice and Learning (proPEL) Conference, University of Stirling 9 may 2012

Kennedy, A. Barlow, W. MacGregor, J. (2012) ‘Advancing Professionalism in Teaching’? An exploration of the mobilisation of the concept of professionalism in the McCormac Report on the Review of Teacher Employment in Scotland, Scottish Education Review 44 (2) 3-13

Sachs, J. (2001) Teacher professional identity: competing discourses, competing outcomes. Journal of Education Policy, 16(2), 149-161.

Sachs, J. (2003) The Activist Teaching Profession, Buckingham : Open University Press.

Whitty, G. (2008) Changing modes of teacher professionalism: traditional, managerial, collaborative and democratic. In: B. Cunningham, ed. Exploring Professionalism: 28-49. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

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