When someone says ‘teaching is a profession’, very few people would think it an odd thing to say.
A few more might think it odd if you said ‘professional practitioners in a learning environment’ because the jargon is clunky. But the substance of what’s said is unlikely to be challenged.
What do we think ‘being professional’ means?
Professional criteria and behaviours
Being a professional – doctor, nurse, police officer – means being part of a group of workers recognised for being in a sector that is regulated, has entry requirements and where there’s official oversight.
Teachers and a growing number of other practitioners engaged with learners fit this description.
But being professional means more than fitting some cold clinical criteria.
Professionals inspire expectations in others. Standards of conduct and habits create expectations.
The culture of a profession matters to the expectations people have of the professionals.
I had knee surgery under general anaesthetic in an operating theatre about 17 years ago. I put myself completely in the care of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses.
If you or I were to go under the knife in that surgery tomorrow, what would we think if we found that the professionals in there were doing the same things in the same way under the same conditions as many years before?
We’d be surprised. And anxious.
We have an expectation that professionals in health keep their skills and knowledge up to date. We also expect that they are encouraged and supported to do so by the system in which they operate.
New ‘professional’ standards for teachers in Wales make it explicit – great pedagogy is paramount, and the “teacher consistently secures the best outcomes for learners through progressively refining teaching, influencing learners and advancing learning.”
In the section on professional learning, it states: “The teacher consistently extends knowledge, skills and understanding and can show how reflection and openness to challenge and support informs professional learning to progressively develop pedagogy.”
Encouraging professional behaviours
The Welsh professional standards for teachers is now being sent out to schools in Wales.
This is a further development in delivering a ‘new deal’ to teachers on professional learning that was launched in 2014 by then Minister for Education Huw Lewis.
The Chartered College of Teaching, underpinned by Royal Charter, is expanding as a member-led professional body for teachers.
One of the first things the College did was sign up to a joint declaration with medical and policing professional bodies that states:
“Evidence of what works and what doesn’t has become, through formal trial and error across all professions and public services, a foundation of professional practice...Therefore, medical Royal Colleges, the College of Policing and the Chartered College of Teaching as leaders of our professions, declare that our institutions expect all members to take full account of evidence and evidence-informed guidance in their daily decisions and advice to individuals and organisations.”
Over 12,000 registrants to the Education Workforce Council have used the free online Professional Learning Passport tool – part of the ‘New Deal’ - to record their formal and informal professional learning. It is growing by 500 users a month.
The direction of travel is clear.
But there are obstacles in the way.
The Welsh Assembly’s Committee for Young People and Education published its’ Report on the Teachers’ Professional Learning and Education inquiry in December 2017. Many organisations submitted evidence. The committee made 25 recommendations linked to 4 conclusions.
Significant changes to curriculum and assessment, budget pressures and just the daily grind, mean that finding the resources and the time to engage in impactful professional learning is hard.
Hard, even if you can find the training that can make a difference in the first place.
The Committee’s survey of teachers found that 61% disagreed with the statement that their “current continuing professional development programme provides school staff with the skills and knowledge they need to effectively do their jobs”.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
There’s a famous quote, falsely attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. It implies that what the people in an organisation believe will have a greater effect on how they behave and what really happens than any strategic plan (even good ones).
It isn’t that planning and taking structural steps don’t matter.
Every culture needs an environment in which to grow, and strategies that affect the environment of an organisation can either encourage or inhibit the behaviours that are wanted.
If we want more time spent on professional learning, we need to make the link between the learning and things that people value much clearer.
Providing and facilitating professional development in teachers helps improve learner outcomes, helps attract and retain staff, improves staff morale, and lowers the need for high-cost interventions.
When these are the benefits gained, and it gets repeated time after time, good habits will take root.
In its evidence to the Committee inquiry, EWC said
“...without central governance, it is difficult to maintain a CPD system which is robust and responsive enough to meet the challenges of a modern education system...It is also necessary to ensure that there is equality of access/opportunity for all schools/practitioners across consortia areas.”
In oral sessions, EWC said
“a national monitoring arrangement” of professional development programmes is “a possibility and an option and that’s what you’ll see in a number of other professions”.
An accreditation programme for school leadership programmes is underway. If it is right for school leaders, why isn’t it right for teachers?
Since April 2016, nurses need to revalidate their registration with the Nursing and Midwifery Council every three years. Included in that is providing evidence of 35 hours of professional development, and 20 of those hours must involve interaction with one or more other professionals.
There are strategies that can encourage the right cultures. In our schools, this means encouraging learning among our practitioners as well as our students.
A culture for professional learning that has deep roots should withstand harsh winds.
Robin Hughes is an educational consultant working with Eteach, GL Assessment and other organisations. He had various roles in an awarding body for over 15 years and is a former Wales Secretary for senior school leader representative organisation ASCL.