Profession of prophets?

Teaching will never become a profession until teachers assume control of knowledge production, gate-keeping and professional ethics

Profession of prophets?

In an earlier article, I spoke about teaching as a lesser profession. Some friends were not happy with this choice of words. Why did I say such a thing about teaching, which was supposed to be the profession of prophets? Didn’t I realise that it was the noblest of all professions? All of us, including the doctors and engineers that I thought were on a higher professional pedestal, were once students and had benefited from teachers. So how could teaching be any lesser than other professions?

Friends, I have been a teacher and teacher educator through most of my active career and I have loved working with students. It has always been a matter of immense satisfaction for me to see my students learn and grow and to feel that I had a small role to play in their growth. Yet, I never thought of myself as a professional in the same ways as, say, the doctors and engineers. Nor was I treated as such by my society. In fact, I have gained more respect in the society by leaving my classroom and becoming something other than the teacher.

Most stakeholders in education think they know what school teaching is all about, what ails it, and how to fix it. Criticising schools and teaching is the favourite pastime, increasingly even bread and butter, of people, many of whom are professionals in their own respective fields. Individuals and organisations, including the big multilateral and bilateral international development partners interested in education, have become enamoured with testing students and hold teachers accountable for their failure. The politicians, the bureaucrats, even the parents where applicable, are seldom held accountable for the success of the students in the same way as teachers.

Look for a formal report on the problems of the medical profession and you will find none with the exception of occasional grumbling by some patients or their relatives. Look for the statistics on school failure and you will find several reports. With some notable exceptions, these reports are compiled by individuals with no direct exposure to the conditions of teaching and they rarely contain perspectives of classroom teachers.

Anyone can tell teachers what to do. I too have ideas about what the teachers should be doing. Here is a story of what happened when I carried some such ideas to a classroom in a peri-urban school. My task was to find if the teachers were using the lesson plans designed to use student centred and inquiry based methods of teaching science. I found that the head teacher, a middle-aged woman, was sitting on a small chair with a drawer table in front of her at the back of a room that housed two classes. Initially, I thought she was on a classroom inspection visit but later I found this was all she had for her office. This school was severely short of both the space and the teachers and had stuffed four classes in each of the only two rooms available.

 Teaching is indeed a lesser profession. And those of us who care about it and want to see its status raised must recognise this to be the case. We should also carefully examine what does it mean for an occupation to be also a profession.

"Please stop giving us these ideas!" she almost shouted at me. "My school needs materials, whitewash, furniture, rooms, chalks and other supplies, but we have none of that…yet you want us to use these lesson plans." The head teacher and her teachers were aware of the newer practices of science teaching and learning from the trainings they had attended. But they did not think they could implement these in the objective conditions of the school in which they taught. In the course of our conversation, the head teacher opened her bag, pulled out and dangled her Metformin and Tenormin in my face. "No one in my family is diabetic or hypertensive. Teaching in these conditions has given me these gifts."

So friends, teaching is indeed a lesser profession. And those of us who care about it and want to see its status raised must recognise this to be the case. We should also carefully examine what does it mean for an occupation to be also a profession. We can begin this conversation on teaching as a profession by recognising that the terms such as profession, professional, and professionalism have acquired their current usage only recently.

For a long time profession was only a verb that signified vows taken by the individuals on joining a religious order. There were no professionals but professors, the individuals who made public declarations. The word professional was first used in mid 1700s.The terms profession and professional acquired their current meaning as denoting someone who belongs to a profession or business of any occupation in c.1811. And this usage emerged in tandem with the development of the specific forms and practices of modern professions.

Becoming a modern profession essentially involved a jurisdictional struggle over a domain of human problems. Consider the development of medicine in Europe and North America as an example of this development. In the colonial India, modern medicine did not have to fight a jurisdictional battle. It simply arrived as an established profession with the British. The medical profession began its development in the early 19th century with founding of a few schools of medicine and with the passage of some exclusive state licensing laws.

Initially, there were a number of competitors to mainstream medical practice, which included homeopaths and faith healers. By late nineteenth century, most competitors to regular medicine had been routed. This was not easy and happened after an intense war over the sole jurisdiction to provide the cure of bodily and mental ills. When all was said and done, as the sociologist of professions Andrew Abbot puts it in his book The System of Professions, "…the nebulous world of proprietary medical schools, patent medicine, and unregulated practice vanished under the clear organisation radiating from a powerful, nationally united profession." Thus, by the late nineteenth century, the regular medicine, which we typically call allopathic medicine in Pakistan, had become the sole claimant over medical care. This entrenchment also involved development of associations such as the American Medical Association (set up in 1847) and journals such as the British Medical Journal (started in 1840), control over medical schools, and the licensing mechanisms.

The vocation of teaching, however, has never been able to develop a jurisdiction over the problems of teaching and learning. It was not the representatives of the teaching professions but the psychologists who did early research on children and teaching. The graduate schools of education were largely sites of psychological research. Likewise, the sociologists and economists looked at teaching from their own disciplinary perspectives.

It is only in the last two decades of the last century that we notice some tangible efforts, mostly in North America, to raise teaching to the same level as other professions. This movement has involved the development of the work of teachers-researchers who set themselves the tasks of developing the specialised knowledge base of teaching.

Teacher scholar Lee Shulman even gave a name to this specialised knowledge, calling it Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). PCK was conceived as the sort of knowledge, which was specific only to the teaching profession. Once armed with a specialised knowledge base, Lee Shulman and his colleagues hoped that teaching would be raised in its stature as a profession. However, the recent standards and accountability movements, combined with an emphasis on using students’ test scores as a basis for teacher accountability have undercut the efforts to professionalise teaching.

Teaching, in its modern incarnation, is not a profession of prophets. There were no professions in the modern sense of the word in the prophetic times. Teaching will perhaps never become a profession until teachers assume control of knowledge production, gate keeping, and professional ethics. Becoming a profession involves winning jurisdictional battles. Although I hope I am proven wrong, I do not think that teachers in Pakistan have the wherewithal or will to engage in one such struggle.

What could be termed professional knowledge about teaching is produced in very few institutions in Pakistan and even those organisations are not directly investing in development of teaching as a profession. Thus, mostly oblivious to the complex problems of teaching and professional development in the real and diverse classrooms of Pakistan, the academic and activist community is increasingly letting its vision be restricted by the test-based statistics.

Teachers do not participate in design and development of most initiatives, including the pre-service teacher education programmes or continuous professional development programmes. Yes, as we are repeatedly told, most initiatives are informed by the teachers’ needs-assessment surveys but these surveys are anything but expressions of teachers’ voice. In part due to the proliferation of donor-funded professional development initiatives, teachers can show you a pile of certificates that they have been given on completion of professional development activities. Yet, none of these are perceived by them to be of much value to their professional development. This is hardly surprising since professional development can only be conceived within the context of a profession and a professional career.

Unfortunately, teaching has neither of these so far. Recently, some efforts have been made by campaigns such as Alif Ailaan to engage teacher unions in education reforms. However, more still needs to be done and until the teachers take charge of their profession, the teaching will remain what it is, a lesser profession.

Acknowledgement: The idea of professional development as struggle for domination of a jurisdiction of human problems used in this article is drawn from Abbott, A. (2014). The system of professions: An essay on the division of expert labor: University of Chicago Press.

Profession of prophets?