January 2017

Thoughts about Teaching as a Profession

A group of Chinese teachers doing a week-long professional development in Canada. In China, teachers are required to engage in meaningful long-term pro-D and to be accountable for what they have learned. I think it shows…

Last Tuesday I was invited (as a volunteer) to visit a local school – John Oliver Secondary School. It is a public secondary school (grades 8-12) located on the East Side of Vancouver. This means that the children in this school come predominantly from the families with the lower Socio-Economic Status as compared to the kids in the Vancouver West or Point Grey area schools. As a result these kids are less exposed to the information about different kinds of jobs and education paths as compared with the kids in other more affluent areas.

Science teachers in this school decided to do something different for grade 9 students. A few years ago, these science teachers had an idea to expose the students to more opportunities in a very informal and interactive way. They decided to invite people from different walks of life to become a human library for a day. Which means we were there for the entire day and the students could come and spend some time with us asking what we do, where we studied, what we like or do not like about our jobs, etc. They also asked what we mean by success, if we have families, where we were born, etc. I kept being asked about “What is my job?”. While trying to think how to respond to this question (as saying I am a professor at University would not mean much to them), I realised once again that I do not think of my work at UBC and my teaching in general as a job. I think of it as a profession. To me a profession is not the same as a job or an occupation. Here is what I found online about the difference between the profession and an occupation: on occupation versus a profession. How I think about it, is that a profession is something you do where you have a skill that you had to master for some time and more importantly, who have to make sure you have to keep learning and improving this skill. A profession is also a combination of skills, hard work, passion, creativity, and dedication to what you are doing. While a profession if you are lucky will help you to make a living it is not always so. A profession also doesn’t mean you are so good at what you do that everything comes easy to you and you do not struggle along the way. You can be a very accomplished person in a certain profession, but if there is no demand for your skills, you might be out of  a job.

To me, this directly applies to teaching and how many people and organisations today are trying to de-professionalise our profession. In other words – to take away training, skills, ability and hard work out of teaching and replace it with seniority. I am part of the organising committee of UBC Physics Olympics (one of the oldest and largest interactive physics outreach events in Canada). As a result I interact with many physics teachers (60+ annually) who bring teams of their students to UBC to compete in the event. These teachers spend countless hours to support their students to build contraptions, learn more physics, learn new skills and work as teams. In order to support these students, the teachers have to acquire lots of skills that many might not have had. For example, they learn programming, design, etc. However, the pay of these teachers as any other teachers in BC depends only on their seniority. In other words, it doesn’t matter how good or how bad a teacher is, it doesn’t matter how professional he or she is, their pay will be the same. So a teacher who dedicates lots of extra time to the school, will not be compensated more to provide a better life for their own family or for themselves. We are trying to make it all equal thus shortchanging and discouraging the teachers who are professional, dedicated and motivated. This would not be tolerated in another professional work where the compensation a professional receives depends on their skill, aptitude, talent and dedication. How do we expect to innovate our schools and prepare our students for the challenges that are coming in the near future, if we discourage the teachers who are role models for our students to be professional?

As part of the Future Schools 2030 project I am involved in, I keep asking myself – what kinds of schools do I see in the near future? And what I see is not schools full of new technologies, or new exciting buildings, I see new kind of teachers who treat teaching as a profession. However, to have these teachers, we have to change the system they are in. If we allow Physics Education teachers to teach physics, we de-professionalize teaching (by the way, I do not think a physics teacher would necessarily be a good PE teacher).  By doing so and claiming that teachers should be “generalists”, we are saying- teachers are replaceable and they do not have special skills that one has to master before becoming one. Why should we be surprised that our students are ill prepared if we devalue professionalism in teaching? I think the brief report by Andrew Hayes and Phil Hegarty talks about it. I also found a few other interesting papers, for example, a paper that focuses on literature review of the the competency-based teacher education.

As a professional involved in Teacher Education, I will keep thinking about these topics. I hope that we will realize that we have to make teaching a profession once again if we want to help our children to have a great future. Now the million dollar question is to figure out how we can get there…


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