On Being a Professional

 by Craig Fishbane

There is no word in the world of education that vexes me more than “professional.”  I don’t say this lightly.  Education has more than its share of vexing words:  re-visit, conference, cohort, implement, metacognitive.  But, for me, professional is the word that contains all of the irritating and insulting paradoxes that inhabit the life of a teacher in the New York City public schools.

In schools across the city, educators hear the word all day long.  It can be used as a compliment:  “That was truly a professional lesson.”  It can be used as kind of a neutral adjective:  “Did you read the latest professional literature on autism?” Mostly, it’s used as an admonition:  “Please, ladies and gentlemen, remember to dress like professionals.” Worst of all, it’s often used to pretend that teachers are allowed to exercise their own judgement and creativity in teaching their students:  “You must follow this program, step by step, and follow the pacing exactly as described in the manual.  But, remember, as professionals we must use this program to meet the needs of each of our students.”

I wonder how many other fields there are where the workers are constantly reminded that they’re professionals.  Does the chief of surgery at a county hospital have to remind his doctors that professionals have to take the stitches out before they play golf?  Does the conductor of an orchestra have to remind his musicians that professionals don’t stick out their tongues at the audience?  Does Vince McMahon have to remind his wrestlers that professionals don’t try to win their matches unless he tells them to?

Obviously, there’s more than one kind of professional.  On the most basic level, the word simply means that you’re paid for your work.  Amateur guitarists play for fun and glory.  Professionals play for their next record contract.

But the word usually implies a level of responsibility that goes far beyond picking up your paycheck:  like a true professional, the singer kept performing even though the microphone didn’t work.  Professionals have a code of ethics that must be adhered to whether it’s expedient or not.  At it’s highest level,  being a professional requires mastering a vast and ancient body of knowledge and then putting that knowledge to good use.

So where do teachers fit in the hierarchy of professionalism?  Are we like doctors and lawyers—or are we closer to wrestlers?  More importantly, what kind of professionals does the Department of Education want as teachers for our children?

Many educators believe that they should be regarded as equals of members of the medical and legal fields—and with good reason.  The best teachers display an expertise in psychology, educational theory, statistics and the humanities that surely matches the intellectual prowess of a brain surgeon.  But public school teachers are not permitted to exercise the kind of professional judgement that doctors must practice daily.  It would be a cause for scandal if a doctor had to tell his patient, “I think you need penicillin but our HMO only believes in aspirins.  So take two and call me if you’re alive in the morning.”  When Department of Education force-feeds its educational prescriptions on every single student in New York City, it’s hailed as a cause for celebration.

So let’s assume that teaching, as it currently exists in New York City, is not a profession at the same level of medicine or law.  Let’s take the next step down:  the musician who keeps playing for the audience even though the microphone doesn’t work.  This musical metaphor for professionalism actually fits quite well.  Teaching is often a grand performance art, where inspired educators lead their students to a new understanding of the world we live in.  There are some teachers who are true maestros of the classical tradition.  There are some who are genius freewheeling improvisers. Yes, teaching would truly be a professional wonderland if school boards across the country saw educators as visionary performers, entrusted with the magical mission of enlightening America’s youth

But, in New York City, the last thing the Department of Education wants is a collection of innovative, experimental teachers.  After all, the Mayor has staked his entire reputation on his ability to reform and improve the schools.  He doesn’t want a bunch of unpredictable geniuses deciding his fate.  He wants people he can control. In Mike Bloomberg’s vision,  professional teachers aren’t supposed to think about what they’re  doing.  They’re supposed to follow instructions and put on a good show—just like the professional wrestler.

As we all know, professional wrestling is the exact opposite of a real athletic contest.  The moves are scripted.  The outcomes are predetermined.  The last thing a professional wrestler is supposed to do is use his own judgement and skill so he can win a match.  The goal of professional wrestling isn’t individual excellence, it’s high television ratings. The World Wrestling Federation has been drawing huge audiences for years.  All it needs is a constant supply of malleable wrestlers that can follow instructions and act out each week’s drama step by step.

Similarly, the Department of Education is looking for a supply of malleable college graduates that can follow instructions and act out each week’s instructional program step-by-step.  The new literacy and math programs are becoming so rigorously formatted that they strip teachers of almost any opportunity for individual judgement.  I know of one fifth grade teacher in Queens that was roundly dressed down by his  principal for not sticking to minute details of the Balanced Literacy format—even though his class had the highest test scores on the grade.  This teacher made the same mistake as a wrestler who wins a surprising victory.  The true professional has to stick to the script at all costs.

So, there you have it:  the drama of professional teachers.  They aspire to the eminence of  great doctors.  They have the skills and vision of virtuoso performing artists.  And, to earn their living, they must put on a show like a professional wrestler.  In many ways, the future of teaching in the United States will be determined by which definition of professionalism comes to dominate the world of education.  I, for one, believe we need to step into the ring and join the ultimate tag-team battle to help the students of this country get the kind of professional teachers that they deserve.

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