Respect for our profession

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a job, I unhesitatingly reply that I am a teacher. Invariably the next question is which school do you work at, what do you teach, do you work in primary or secondary and the like. What nobody ever asks me is what is a teacher?

A brief look into the world wide web tells us much about what people might be thinking when they hear our profession named. Wikipedia describes teaching as the profession associated with education, usually in a school, TAFE or university, involving a formal process etc. To be fair, such descriptions also attempt to capture the wide range of formal and informal contexts in which teachers interact with students in the process of education. It seems reasonable to assume that most people are thinking these same things when it comes to our profession, i.e. there is a common understanding of the basic concept of teacher and teaching.

The socialisation of this understanding both diminishes the status of our profession and renders us vulnerable to disrespect, in that it takes away the “mystery” of our craft. People rarely pretend to comprehend the work performed by a doctor or lawyer, and it is this deficiency that leads our community to afford them precedence in terms of authority and respect. Conversely, teachers represent something that most people purport to understand, and we receive a lesser level of respect as a consequence.

The teaching profession is entitled to equal respect with other professions: we have, in fact, earned it. We work long hours, have high levels of qualification and expertise, embrace altruism in our professional purpose, deliver a public service that is dedicated to the public good and appropriately shape the lives and futures of whole communities. Why then is there such a disjuncture between what is and what should be?

One insight into the cause of this loss of status is founded in the power of language, especially the introduction of alternative professional descriptors. Teachers are described as coaches, tutors, facilitators or instructors. Teaching is unsympathetically referred to as delivery, coaching or investigation. On the surface, it is a seemingly minor and technical differentiation, but something that is very revealing in terms of what amounts to propaganda.

The avoidance of widely understood terms such as teacher and teaching goes directly to the intent of commentators: diminish the status of the target, belittle them in public discourse or belabour false stereotypical descriptions focused on largesse and sloth. We have all heard such statements and experienced the barbs, intentional or otherwise, of those who utter such things.

None of these concerns are new and the solution is not simple. Much can be achieved by our insistence on simple courtesies and appropriate language. However, ultimately we must win the struggle for hearts and minds that pits us against employer and politician for the acknowledgement and consideration of the broader public. Teacher and principal wellbeing depend upon it, and ultimately this will determine the long term efficacy of the education system as a whole.

Kevin Bates

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 3, 24 April 2015, p7