June 11, 2012

Keeping the “Professionalism” in the Profession

A quick scan of my blog reveals I've discussed the word "accountability" often. LIke the word rigor, it's a word I despise when it comes to education and yet is the word governments and schools and districts use to market themselves as doing what's in the best interest of students. I've sat in on many discussions with well meaning, caring people who have adopted this ideology of measuring and "holding people accountable" for the work they do. While, that idea seems not only plausible and even essential for our time, it inevitably assumes that someone's doing something wrong. You can massage the message as much as you like but that word makes people feel less motivated to do good work for good work's sake and do it because they're being told to or else. What a lousy work environment. If we wonder sometimes why kids don't like school very much maybe it's because their teacher's don't like it and maybe it has something to do with the notion of accountability. 

We've been hearing a great deal about the work in Finland schools of late and for good reason. Of the many things they're doing right, one is that they never once use the term "accountability"

"…there is no word for "accountability" in Finnish. When asked to explain the concept to a group of colleagues in Finland, Sahlberg said, "Accountability is what's left when you take out responsibility."

The word doesn't exist in their language. There are bad teachers in our schools. But not very many. What I see as I spend time in schools are teachers who truly want to facilitate learning for students. They don't need anyone pushing them to do it. They already feel responsible. If you think adding the "accountability measures" will make them perform better, watch from the 7:37 mark to the 9:18 mark. 


Alfie Kohn spoke about the risk of tougher standards in education from SFU Education on Vimeo.

In the past decade, I've seen teachers continue to be treating less like professionals and more like factory workers. While there may be a myriad of factors I point to the buzzword and notions of accountability as the main culprit. I have no "data" to back my claims but many conversations and observations of teachers who feel less empowered to use their professional judgment and more restricted by mandates and a narrowing of beliefs and approaches to how to best teach our children. In a world that offers much greater opportunity to customize and personalize learning, shouldn't we be empowering and entrusting the adults to do the same? 

Yet many would argue that some of our teachers aren't doing this. I would agree but that's mostly to do with an environment that does little to encourage and support exploration and curiosity. 

I'm not trying to suggest this is simple. I've shared a few thoughts about how to make better teachers and I admit, while I suggest some simplistic ideas, I'd also argue that they represent a significant cultural shift that most schools are far from attaining. If we're really serious about empowering students we need to begin with returning that power to our teachers. In teaching my pre-service teachers, I've been offering them the chance to take ownership of their learning by having them self asses. They become accountable to themselves not to me. My role is to monitor and step in if I think they're struggling. Of my 30 students, I only had to address  a couple of students who weren't engaged. The other 28 are learning interdependently and holding each other accountable. Although I don't think I've ever used that word.

A teacher is by definition a professional and over time they've had their professionalism eroded. That should stop. I want the future teachers I teach to be responsible, caring adults that have developed a network of educators and a culture of sharing that will make them and their students successful. If I can help facilitate that, they will be an asset to any school they work at. They'll be professionals.

 If you're a teacher, I'd love to hear your stories of how you've had your professionalism given back to you or if you've felt it taken away. If you're in leadership, maybe you can share how you've been working to restore professionalism or how you're addressing the notions of accountability.  I've shared my thoughts, you share yours.