Monday, 28 March 2016

Teacher Professionalism - Professional responsibility and professionalism (Tara Fenwick, 2016)

In trying to understand the complexities of professionalism I have turned to the work of Tara Fenwick.  Tara delivered a keynote at the SERA conference in November which was very insightful and thought provoking. She discusses that being a professional requires that you have certain responsibilities to the profession, the client (students) and also the public (education is paid for by the public purse and as thus can be defined as public service). Given this public service status, there are four defining principles of public service, which according to McDermott (2011) are autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice. So in the public interest teachers are expected as part of their professionalism to be;
·         autonomous; some form of personal control and responsibility,
·         beneficent; to act in the public good and cause no harm,
·         non –maleficent; not to act in ways that show malice or are intentionally harmful, and finally
·         promote justice; to promote equality, equity and moral rightness.

This is the foundation of ethical behaviour and is embodied in the professional values and personal commitment section of the Professional Standards set by GTC Scotland. Professionalism and ethics can be seen to be have commonality, this promotes a common sense approach by doing the right thing and is outlined in Code of Professionalism and Conduct (CoPAC). However, this overlap can also be troublesome. Through dispensing their role, teachers should not be expected to ‘fix’ bigger societal problems but there is an imperative to contribute. This is a creeping issue as governments try to tackle society problems by reaching out to young people, and the education system gives easy and manageable access.

For teachers though there is a balance point between CoPAC and doing the right thing, but this raises a question and highlights a troubled relationship between professional responsibility (professional judgement) and accountability (compliance with CoPAC and the suite of Standards). Responsibility in this way is demonstrated through more proactive activities compared with accountability which is demonstrated by more reactive behaviour. Fenwick sates that “professionalism is not a singular thing” (2016:32) but is in fact a social contract between the professional, the profession and the communities the professional serves. The tightrope of professional to unprofessional leads to teachers trying to find a balance between these concepts, where is the tipping point between ‘conscientious objection’ and ‘conduct unbecoming’?

Although professional responsibility can be considered as a personal matter described by an individual’s disposition, attitudes and behaviours, Fenwick cites an example of where the same professionalism is given different meaning on the responsibility and accountability spectrum “In the US for example, professionalism at least in the medical field is decree in abstract terms of idealism, while in Europe professionalism is framed in terms of observable behaviours” (2016:25). Fenwick cites Lewis (2006) who argues that there is a fundamental conflict between the ‘profession’, which is about institutionalised discipline, and professionalism, which is about values and responsibility.

So how can we supporting professionalism?

This is the section of the Standards (Professional Values and Personal Commitment) that is most difficult to evaluate due to its complex nature. Fenwick discusses the notion of ‘attunement’. Attunement is the belief that professional responsibility cannot be defined by professional action or agency but by a more intuitive behaviour that understands the climate of the classroom through multi-sensory observations. Highly attuned practitioners can avert problems by reading and interpreting climate to reframe and avert issues. This attunement could be called “knowing-in-practice” Fenwick (2016:10). Attuement is developed over time, through professional noticing, reflection of the classroom experience and a critical examination by the teacher of their values, attitudes and dispositions. Alongside developing attunement teacher also have to keep alive to their social responsibilities. Teachers have social responsibility to three different communities of learners, the student body, the school learning community and finally the teacher profession. The expectations for each community can be different and thus the teacher must navigate a path that satisfies all three, while developing themselves as professionals.

Professionalism and professional learning

Undertaking professional learning is a fundamental aspect of professional update but as teacher ‘learning is fluid, iterative and unpredictable’ then often this has to be considered over time and with a range of evaluation tools. Professional learning can also be understood as negotiating identity, managing transitions effectively, producing innovations or even critically questioning norms of practice Fenwick (2016:48). In a study by Aasen, Amundsen, Gressgard et al (2012), professional learning was found to be most effective when;
·         Leaders are involved to encourage practitioners and be part of the learning
·         The ethos of improvement is overtly linked to teacher learning
·         Using strategies that promote practitioner driven innovations

Fenwick states (2016:189) “experimentation is also critical in professional practice, which Mosler (2008) describes as continuous attunement and adjustment with what evolves, and Mol (2009) describes as tinkering”. But teachers must go beyond ‘tinkering’ and use research, reflection and evidence of impact to link their learning to improved outcomes for students.
Collaborative learning is often cited by teachers as being the most productive and enjoyable way of learning in their community. While synergy is created in collaborative working there has been little critical evaluation of the impact of collaborative working and indeed Fenwick (p113) states there is an “absence of clear empirical evidence that these arrangements actually improve service (Dunston 2014: Fenwick 2012a).

This can also be said of partnership working in which a third space must be created to allow partners from different organisations to collaborate. This sometimes becomes a highly desirable notion but the practice of which needs to consider issues of power, structure and professional identities have to be negotiated. This negotiation in partnership working has to begin by looking at the problem and recognising that professionals from different organisations address the same problem but can do so with diametrically opposed expected outcomes. Fenwick offered an excellent example of this with the question “why is palliative care almost never offered to patients with advanced heart disease (Lingard, McDougall, Shultz et al 2014)? The answer lies in the different ethical approaches, palliative care practitioners support patients to manage dying, whereas cardiac surgeon are focussed on saving the patient’s heart. This example demonstrated that collaboration between organisations requires more than just good communication, common purpose and clear goal, with negotiated ‘ways of working’ are of paramount importance and this can be difficult to negotiate.

The concepts of what is professional and what is professionalism, demands that teachers examine their own belief systems and deliver their role via the protocols and guidelines that describe ‘profession behaviours’ in the context of teaching in Scotland.

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