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.


Yesterday, I listened to this recording of retiring Dean of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, Graeme Aitken, in conversation with RNZ’s Kim Hill. While there are many interesting points raised, I’d like to respond with a story about why teaching is an awesome profession. So, here’s the pinnacle of my teaching career…

Ko Pironga te maunga. My photo.

Without meaning any disrespect to the schools that followed, my four years of teaching at Aquinas College in Tauranga remain the absolutely outstanding favourite of my career. It was a new school, had only been open for two years when I joined. I came in with the first cohort of Year 12s, and was their dean. I taught primarily English, but with a little bit of German on the side. Eventually I also became the Assistant Head of the Languages Faculty and the teacher trustee on the Board of Trustees. But this isn’t a story about any of that.

It’s a story of me and the next bunch of Year 12s I had the genuine privilege of being dean to. In my first year at Aquinas, I had two Year 10 English classes. The DP at the time told me that these kids were the best kids in the school. He wasn’t wrong. I felt instantly connected to these two classes – still couldn’t tell you which one was my fave for the year of the two – and, more broadly, loved the year group as a whole. So when I had the opportunity to be their dean two years later, I leapt at the chance.

Such neat young people. Kind, connected, fun, great sense of humour, interested in the world, with a real sense of community. Everything you could possibly want in a young adult. But they weren’t especially enamoured with one of their Maths teachers. There was a bit tension which I was called on at times to mediate. It can be a tricky road to hoe, sometimes, being a dean. You are an advocate for ‘your kids’, but you have a professional responsibility to support your teaching colleagues too.

So, when one of the best of the best kids of the year group came to fetch me from the middle of their Maths lessons, I knew it was serious. I had to act, and to act swiftly. Of course, none of the senior leaders was anywhere to be seen, so I was off. On my high horse. Riding to the rescue. I followed the young woman down the corridor towards… wait, this wasn’t in the direction of the Maths class…

I walked out of the front doors of the school towards the landscaped garden. In front of the large wooden cross (Catholic school, Aquinas College), the whole year group was gathered. I was thoroughly perplexed. What was going on?

The young woman I had been following, turned to me and presented me with a gift. An engraved silver cross: YR12 07.


I almost still don’t know what to say about that moment. Except that it still moves me to tears. This is why you go teaching. To make a difference. And if, very occasionally, that gets acknowledged, then you treasure it to your dying day.

Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu. Though it be small, it is greenstone – it is precious.

Reflection: ‘Is the Sage on the Stage Really Dead’?

Something I’ve been enjoying is listening to podcasts on my morning walk (Wellington weather permitting…).  Friday morning’s podcast was asking whether or not the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching was really dead.  To be fair, the speakers’ responses clearly indicated that it is not, as they were mostly giving advice on how to move away from direct instructional teaching methods to more guiding or facilitating of students.

Some of the comments I heard really got me thinking and reflecting on my own practice.  The comment that had the most impact on me was the thought that many teachers agreed with the need to shift from ‘sage’ to ‘guide’ from an ideological view point, but found it difficult to enact from a practical stand point.  Hands up.  No, just me then?

This comment really encapsulates my fear when looking to move forward pedagogically next year.  I’m in the process of writing programmes for my classes in 2014, but what if they’re not ‘flipped’ enough, or provide enough authentic context, or seek to provoke genuine engagement… And I’m meant to be leading professional learning with this stuff?  Yikes!

In a way it’s really difficult to imagine what a student-centred classroom would look like when you’ve never experienced it yourself.  I’ve moved so much from when I first started this journey – from being a reluctant adopter, motivated essentially extrinsically due to the fact that my school was moving to BYOD and I would hate to see laptops as expensive electronic exercise books and pens, to being a raving enthusiast.  But.  I’ve yet to implement any of the stuff I’m likely to advocate.

I guess I just have to live in hope that my fear will be my saving grace.  That, as one participant in the podcast said, where there’s a will; there’s a way.  I’ll consider the advice I gleaned from the chat: ‘ask, don’t tell’ – how can I pose questions to lead students towards information rather than rely on me for direct instruction?  I kind of like the idea of setting the daily homework assignment of students asking a question about their learning every day – preferably in an online environment – which could help me to guide further learning, and, if I track the questions over time, to help me develop question-asking skills in learners.  Because, ultimately students don’t need us to be their source of information.  They have Google and Wikipedia for that.  We need to provoke students into asking their own questions, and to help them find or use the tools to explore their own answers.


Modern = Good?

I have just finished reading Claire Amos’ eminently sensible article written for the New Zealand Education Review.  (You can read the whole thing here.)

It seems to me that she really hits the nail on the head when she poses the following question:

“Interestingly, while I value and see huge potential in both MLEs and (student-owned) Learning Technologies, I am also concerned about them. I am concerned that the development of MLEs and the introduction of Learning Technologies can become a bit of a smoke screen and can actually create an illusion of modernity when little has actually changed. I worry that the introduction of these physically palpable and measurable objects will be seen as making a change for the better, when the one thing that really needs to be ‘introduced’ is still lacking: the teacher’s belief that the student is capable of leading their own learning. How do we ensure that MLEs and Learning Technologies don’t actually create the educational equivalent of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ with old beliefs and teaching approaches being dressed up in hip and groovy clothing?”

This fits in with the challenge I see for my school as move towards BYOD.  It is not about the technology.  Ultimately it is about the pedagogy and that is the change we need to spark in our teachers.  Bean bags and iPads do not necessarily bring about future-focused learning.  And that is a mind shift I still need to wrestle with myself.  But boy, it’s fun thinking!

An Afternoon with Ken

Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley

3 Principles that supports human life flourishing:

  1. Diversity – “kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents”
  2. Curiosity – “curiosity is the engine of achievement”
  3. Creativity – “one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop powers of creativity”

Other gems from this talk:

  • Great teachers “mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage”
  • “The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning” – there is difference between the task of teaching and the achieving of it, e.g. dieting.  You can be on a diet, but not be losing weight…!
  • There is a place for testing but it should not obstruct learning.  We currently have a culture of compliance rather than a culture of curiosity.
  • Case of Finland, where teaching and learning is individualised
  • Also places importance on the professional learning of teachers

It would be interesting to see what the New Zealand Curriculum says about these three principles.  My current understanding is that they are supported.  The intention behind the NZC is for schools to create their own curricula which are in line with the communities and students they serve.

The three principles are also ways to measure the benefit of new teaching practices.  Will they allow diversity, curiosity and creativity to flourish?