The Profession of Teaching

What is a professional? I have been reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008, Allen Lane), and it’s given me pause for thought.

Shirky argues that a profession is a specialist position: one that requires specialist knowledge beyond that required of a regular ‘job’. A professional is a product of scarcity, coming to the fore where there is abundance; many customers, few specialists. Think of a librarian; many books (yes, I know they do way more than books, but go with me) – few librarians. Many businesses; few accountants.

Further, a professional has to have specialised training, gain certification, and this grants them membership into a particular body or organisation of similarly trained and certified professional peers. This professional body sets the norms, accepted practice, code of conduct: determines what being a professional in that profession actually looks like in practice. In this way, Shirky says, a professional cares at least as much about what their practice looks like to other professionals in their field as they do their customers.

By way of illustrative example, and building on earlier chapters in his book, Shirky analyses the rise of blogging (cue some irony) and what this means for the profession of journalism. With a blogging platform, anyone and everyone can be a ‘journalist’, reporting and editoralising on the news.

Image source: rawpixel, CC0

So if anyone can be a journalist, what does this mean for the profession of journalism? Shirky raises many interesting points, not the least of which is about the journalist’s ‘right’ to protect their sources. But one I’m particularly struck by is that when anyone can report the news, it challenges what counts as ‘news’. An event that the mainstream media, those certified, card-carrying members of the professional body of journalists, may, in their professional judgement, deem unworthy of publication can be deemed highly important and newsworthy to a blogger. Gather enough steam online, and the originally un-newsworthy event may even eventually be picked up by the mainstream media. Is this the rise of the amateur, or a time of mass professionalism?

All this leads me to think about the profession of teaching.

Thanks to technology, just like blogging and journalism, anyone can be a teacher. Wikipedia, YouTube, Khan Academy, TED talks, and any number of community websites, fora and noticeboards which help online members… these are means by which people learn, mostly in an open-source, crowdsourced kind of way.

As Shirky says:

“A profession becomes, for its members, a way of understanding their world …. Sometimes, though, the professional outlook can become a disadvantage, preventing the very people who have the most at stake – the professionals themselves – from understanding major changes to the structure of their profession” (p. 58).

So, what does being a professional teacher mean to you? What might we be missing when we see our profession through our professional glasses?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

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