Editorial: There is nothing professional about working so hard you make yourself ill!
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 7, 2 October 2020, page no.5
A week before I wrote this, Kate Ruttiman, one of the QTU’s two Deputy General Secretaries, came to talk about a visit to a school where members were disgruntled.
As she talked, she related how the teachers said it would be unprofessional to raise issues of workload about the processes being used in their school. And when asked about raising issues at a QTU branch meeting as an avenue outside of school to raise their concerns, they said they felt unprofessional in their inability to translate their concerns into a motion.
I checked to be sure that they had themselves used the word “unprofessional”. I become very alert when people talk about this or that being unprofessional. Because in my view it has become the most misused, abused and manipulative word in the language of teaching.
Talk about being “unprofessional” always reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s adage that “an appeal to patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel”. So is a reference to unprofessionalism in education. That is not a criticism of the teachers at the school; it is an observation about how embedded wrong-headed notions of professionalism have become, and how debilitating.
“Unprofessional” has many meanings in the language of teachers. Two were on display in that short conversation.
In the second example – relating to being unable to formulate a branch motion – the use was “unprofessional” meaning imperfect. Anything less than perfect is unprofessional. How absurd to saddle oneself, or allow one to be saddled, with such a burden (I’m a recovering perfectionist who still regresses, so I should know!)
Very often, the time and effort to get from good to perfect is more than that to get to good. To use an economic term, what is the opportunity cost – the alternative uses to which that time and effort might be put – of perfectionism? Too often it is wellbeing and private time, hence the need to draw boundaries. But even within the 42 hours a teaching week benchmark that we are starting to use, the opportunity cost can be professional development or collaboration with colleagues. Is it worth the cost?
There is a choice. There is nothing wrong with good or even adequate until time and resources and priorities allow.
The greater mischief
The second meaning of “unprofessional” in that conversation has two variations: it is “unprofessional” to not do as ordered; and it is “unprofessional” to not use ALL your time and energy in support of your students.
The first variation is the collision between being a professional and being part of the huge Taylorist bureaucracy that is the Queensland Department of Education. Obedience has everything to do with bureaucracy and nothing to do with professionalism. I have written about this many times. You are professional when you say “no” rather than when you acquiesce against your own professional judgement.
The second variation is rooted in one stereotype of teaching (of seven) that Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan described in their 2012 book, Professional Capital, as “a sacred calling of service and sacrifice to a community and its greater good”. We could call it the sacrificial stereotype. It has strong religious overtones that probably derive from teaching religious orders. Indeed, you may as well have taken religious vows:
Obedience - to the bureaucracy
Poverty – better paid than religious, but you are expected to buy essential resources out of your own pocket
Chastity – when would you have the time or energy?
We are dealing with excessive workload and burnout because the sacrificial stereotype has become pervasive in popular culture (name the last movie about teaching that didn’t have this as either the story or an assumption) and in public discourse, e.g. media stereotypes. And the sacrificial stereotype of teaching is fundamentally manipulative – emotional or economic blackmail squeezing the teacher dry – and fundamentally exploitative.
A summary of professionalism I go back to is the summary in “A Class Act” – the 1998 Senate Committee report on the status of the teaching profession. The consensus characteristics of professions and professionals listed included:
- A strong motivation or calling
- Possession of a specialised body of knowledge and skills acquired during a long period of education
- Control by the profession of standards, admission, career paths and discipline
- Autonomy in carrying out their work
- Ongoing exercise of professional judgement
- Acceptance and application of a code of professional practice.
We might also add ongoing professional learning (in whatever form it takes) and, in teaching at least, the importance of collaboration and collective effort.
Alert and alarmed
There is no fundamental deficit in teacher professionalism in Australia, but the profession is becoming unattractive and untenable because of the demands placed upon it. So, whenever someone suggests that to resist this or that additional demand would be “unprofessional”, be both alert and alarmed.
Analyse what is being said to you. Is it truly “unprofessional” or just another piece of manipulation? If it is manipulation, reject it. Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.