March 4, 2024

Jose Luis Vilson: Professional: A Word That Means Nothing and Everything to Teachers

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Jose Luis Vilson is a teacher, writer and education scholar in New York. In a recent post, he considers the importance of “professional” for teachers and education.

Sometime in the summer of 2020, a small, vocal set of parents and advocates decided that teachers should get back to work.

They overshadowed the public praise for teachers and schools in favor of opening up schools all willy-nilly. Of course, studies and polls kept disrupting that narrative, but the narrative persisted. Parents of school-aged children support their local teachers and schools, and much of the narrative came from adults without children. Studies showed that learning loss proponents overstated their claims given that the United States fared better than most industrialized countries. They’d say teachers are overpaid, but compared to other professions with comparable licensure, teachers don’t come close, even worse without collective bargaining.

But narratives persist, chipping away at the notion of having a democratic institution dedicated to educating youth, however imperfectly. So, after reading this great article by Deborah Ball, this begs the question: what does it mean to be professional? Here, I attempt an answer.

For the average person, “professional” refers to many things: expertise, experience, comportment, dress, manner of speaking, technique, and so on. We have a concept of what it means to be a professional athlete. We expect a level of professionalism from doctors, lawyers, police officers, and other salaried representatives of institutions. People have expectations about how they behave and look, how they go about procedures, and whether they’re doing their work to fidelity according to some training site somewhere with a fancy title.

For sociologists studying this issue, including me, we generally study these elements under the “sociology of professions.” Power, expertise, and autonomy allow society to confer a status onto individuals even when we’re skeptical of individual actors within those professions. We also observe how professional trust has gone down since the 1980’s as people have learned to trust institutions less.

But for teachers, it means multiple things depending on who says it and why. Society has gotten into the habit of treating teaching as a semi-profession by saying things like “They’re in it for the outcome, not the income.” Or, significantly worse, “If you can’t, teach.” Whatever that means.

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