A debate has been going on for ages if teaching should be considered a "profession" compared to other occupations. The main features characterising a teacher as "a professional" are those that have been extrapolated by analysing the distinguishing traits of practitioners like doctors and lawyers. Law and medicine represent a paradigm with which to compare other activities. The list of criteria that need to be met to reach the status of "profession" according to the afore mentioned template can be summarised as:
specialised knowledge or shared technical culture (Hargreaves, 1996);
substantial training tested by examinations;
a commitment to meet the expectations of the public (external authorities, parents, etc.);
the creation of self-regulated autonomous organisations responsible for recruitment, training, ethics and standards of practice (Hargreaves, 1996). Autonomy seems to be the most important defining trait of a profession.
Teaching has been considered for many years a sort of semi-profession in the sense that some of the above outlined requirements were only partially fulfilled. For example many have argued that working in an isolated contest of a classroom was a hindrance to sharing and developing a true form of professionalism. Nonetheless the general credence was that eventually all occupations would have achieved professional status due the always increasing need of specialised knowledge required to perform almost every task (a professionalisation of a job would have resulted in a higher status and a better salary). Unfortunately things turned out differently because the continuous need for specialisation ended up with fragmentations of professions whose autonomy was greatly undermined. The history of teaching in the UK from the fifties faced different phases and changes (Geoff Whitty, 1996):
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a first period of great autonomy for teachers all over England lasted until the eighties without any reliable way to control their competence in terms of knowledge, performance and skills. This period is often referred to as "golden age" (Le Grand, 1997). A National Curriculum didn't exist and parents were forced to trust teachers that decided what to teach and how to do it;
during the mid-seventies teachers were accused to abuse their excessive autonomy and new policies were implemented to get public schools to compete in the free market and being more controlled by national governments. Public schools were given budgets and structured in hierarchical tiers to accommodate the increasing requests of parents. This kind of devolution had a main flaw though, it made school result-orientated. A series of outcomes had to be reached by every school at the end of the year and this contributed to curtail the autonomy teachers had enjoyed until then. The apex of this new way of managing schools was the introduction in the 1988 of the National Curriculum. A process of standardisation started.
Right now we live in a period were teachers are not decision makers and on the other hand they suffer more responsibilities than before. Three of the four conditions of being a professional have been met but autonomy has been seriously undermined. Standards, outcomes and accountabilities are now set for every teacher and they are often more important than his professional development. By setting out targets, objectives and boundaries a process of "deskilling" has been set in motion and teachers find themselves in a position were their professional freedom is really endangered. GTCE is a recent regulatory body established in 1998 in relation to the Higher Education Act (the new government may abolish the GTCE while this essay is being written). The purposes of this body are essentially three:
to keep and update a register of qualified teachers;
to create a regulatory code for teachers;
to act as an interface between teachers and government.
Qualified Teacher Status is awarded by GTCE and professional standards must be met in order to achieve this qualification. Some of them can be summarised as follows (Allen M., Toplis R.,2009):
Dress according different schools' codes;
Punctuality and reliability;
Ensure that pupils learn;
be constantly improving subjects' knowledge;
be a leader
After carefully considering all the numerous characteristics that define a profession it is possible to affirm that teaching is not a profession because it lacks autonomy. It seems that in the UK (but the same thing can be said of other countries as well) teaching has now become "a prisoner" of governments and national curricula and the freedom of practitioners has been severely limited. So while in the past teaching couldn't be a profession because completely deregulated now too many regulations seem to limit the abilities of an educator.
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Another definition often associated to a teacher is that of a reflective practitioner. Reflective thinking is a concept first introduced by Dewey at the beginning of the last century and it has been developed later on by other writers and philosophers like Schön and Gibbs that broadened the scope of Dewey's work by talking of reflective practice.
It is important to understand that reflection is an abstract concept and a lot of attempts have been made at conceptualizing it. Although there are different opinions on how reflection should be implemented by a professional it seems clear from all the available literature that a reflective process is learning from experience.
Dewey was the first to theorize the criteria defining reflection (according to him its ultimate purpose was to guarantee the progress of an individual and a society).
He believed that only through reflection was possible for a learner to create meaning by formulating relationships and continuities between an experience and another (experiences are deeply interconnected and a true meaning can be extrapolated only by comparing them).
He thought that reflection mirrored the scientific method through various phases:
experimentation of an experience and interpretation of it;
formulation of problems encountered in a specific experience and possible solutions;
formulation and testing of hypotheses.
The agility to move through these phases depends on experience (it is quite intuitive that an experienced teacher will be quicker at experimenting hypotheses than a beginner). In order to find out if a way of thinking is correct it needs to be shared inside a community. Dewey believed that working in groups could bring veracity to personal theories and a sense of perspective (this is a necessary condition of personal development because it is clear that without feedbacks from other people how can someone know if what it is perceived in a certain way may have different angles? Feedbacks are a fundamental part of our society and an individual may benefit greatly from them if he keeps an open mind). Once a problem is formulated in the correct way it is easier to generate various solutions (formulation of hypoteses). Hypotheses in order to be verified and bettered need to be tested. Only the right attitudes can set in motion correct processes of learning (motivation, directness, curiosity, open-mindedness, etc.).
Years later other authors started writing about reflection giving their personal contribution to Dewey's ideas. Schön for example affirmed that learning from practice could be split in three stages:
Knowing-in-action: when a problem is experienced many times routines are developed by individuals spontaneously on how to solve it. Without reflective thinking the pattern developed is not applicable to similar situations;
Reflection-in-action: it is an instantaneous reflection that happens whenever something is experienced. Knowing in action is questioned during at this stage;
Reflection-on-action: It takes place after the event when the situation is examined carefully. Evaluation and planning ensue. Individuals need to be open to advice from more experinced professionals (Allen M., Toplis R.,2009). Reflection on action is a fundamental phase in order to construct a precise professionality over the years.
According to the parameters mentioned in the first chapter of this essay teaching has always been caught in the borderline between a profession and a semi-profession. Is it really so important to define an occupation professional? The autonomy of lawyers and doctors is not as it used to be and the use of the term "profession" seems now inappropriate even for these categories of workers.
Professionalism can be seen in a different way because every worker will always have to meet predetermined standards making him a "Professional" in what he is doing. A teacher should always be a reflective practitioner but it is difficult to learn from daily experiences if the autonomy to carry out changes is hindered. Universities teach students all about certain subjects but the most part of them don't teach students how to reflect. Reflection for the majority of people is an art that is developed unconsciously on a daily basis without a proper set of rules to make this process
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logical, continual and reliable. Everybody with an open mind and that is open to suggestions can become better at what he is doing. Like Dewey stressed in his books curiosity and motivation play a key role in the development of an individual. Without motivation every kind of work tends to be performed automatically and that sense of criticality that is necessary for learning for life is lost. Curiosity should lead an individual to test new ideas in order to verify their validity instead of formulating hypotheses based only on past experiences.