Are Teachers Professionals?

Are teachers professionals? The answer has to be ‘Yes’ if level of complexity is one of the criteria.

Story one.

A few years ago, on a frozen snow and dangerous to be outside sort of day, I slipped on the pavement. I broke my wrist pretty badly and was taken to hospital. Obviously, the hospital was a little chaotic, full of people like me and doctors and nurses trying to help us.

After a while I was x-rayed. After a longer wait, a surgeon came up to me in the crowded waiting area with my x-rays, which he put into a light box and looked at. My wrist was broken in three different places.  After looking at the screen for a couple of minutes he caught the arm of a passing colleague. For the next five minutes – amidst the chaos – they discussed together the operation I would have to have to get my wrist back to some sort of normal.

Story two.

I’m watching my favourite professional soccer team. There’s fifteen minutes to go and we are losing 0-1. Someone gets injured and the medical staff run on to the pitch. As they do that, the manager, who has been in deep conversation with his assistant, calls the captain of our team towards him. For about 30 seconds, they talk together, arms pointing to different parts of the pitch. Before the match resumes, we have taken two of our team off the pitch and replaced them with substitutes. As the game begins again, we all notice that the team has changed its formation. Fifteen minutes later, at full-time, we have won the game 2-1. One of the substitutes has scored both our goals.

Story three.

I’m meeting my wife at the end of her day as Practice Administrator for a group of architects. As I enter the office it seems pretty deserted. Jean points out to me they are all in the meeting room. I look through the window and seven architects are standing round a table that has a scale model of a project on it and large plans open across the table. I know them well, and one of them sees me and waves me in. For the next 30 minutes I stand quietly watching and listening to architects helping one of them solve a problem she has with the project she is working on. After thirty minutes, she says ‘Thanks everyone. Couldn’t have worked this out without you’.

What do the surgeons, the football manager and players and the architects have in common? Well, first of all, they are all professional people doing complex jobs. (A certain level of complexity in what people do is one of things that marks out a professional from a non-professional.) Second, they all work interdependently to solve many of their daily problems – my wrist, the team that is losing, the building that has to fit onto a very tricky piece of land. Third – and here is the big point – they are doing it in real time while the game is going on.

Are teachers professionals? The answer has to be ‘Yes’ if level of complexity is one of the criteria. Here we are planning for students of different abilities, with different characters and dispositions who come into school each morning having had differently helpful experiences at home before they arrive and different experiences with their friends before and between lessons. (As you know, this list of factors isn’t exhaustive.) Inside the classroom, teachers have to make the lesson work in real time with real young people in front of them, whilst making sure that the lesson starts on time and finishes on time so that the students can move on to something else. I think that counts as complex. We are a professional as the surgeon, the footballer manager and the architect in this respect.

But then things change. In most schools, teachers don’t have the opportunity to work with each other in real time to discuss what is going on. If student learning isn’t going well and there’s only 15 minutes to go, only the very best teachers are capable of making the changes so that the students end with a win. In many classrooms the lesson carries on being played out in the same way with a sort of hope that we might do better in the next learning ‘game’.

Some schools claim there are structural reasons why we can’t create situations for teachers to work together and there are, but not as many as people think. We know that because some really good schools – schools that truly care about winning the learning game for students – are able to make collaborative, real-time support between teachers work in practice.

More of the problem seems to me to be attitudinal. One of the reasons some teachers entered the profession was precisely because it allowed them to be in classrooms on their own. Later, these people literally can’t see why they should be in classrooms other than to do as cursory walk-through. They don’t see themselves as coaches and they don’t think that their colleagues would benefit from real-time conversations about learning in classrooms.

Sometimes, their colleagues agree with them. At some point in the last three years, a teacher said to me in all seriousness ‘I don’t want anyone in my room. I’ve been teaching 35 years and I’m fine.’  I respect the fact that the teacher held this view honestly but she’s flat out wrong. I’m vey pleased that my surgeon is both up to date and open to others’ opinions; that the manager of my team makes changes in real time and that I’m working in a building that has been designed through discussion.

Here’s the truth. If students matter more than teachers, we need to do everything we can to increase the chances for that to happen. Increasing the number of discussions about real-time learning and how to improve it between colleagues who respect each other could possibly create the biggest improvement in student learning we have ever seen.

Teachers are half way to being really professional. Now we need to make the second step, everywhere.

Martin Skelton

Group Director of Learning and Education, International Schools Partnership

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