Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Defining Teacher Professionalism

A talk to the College of Teaching conference 
Sheffield Hallam University Institute of Education
May 4th, 2016

I’m a teacher. A bog standard, run-of-the-mill, common variety teacher.  So why on Earth am I here? I’ve been invited to talk today about defining teacher professionalism, but who am I to do that?

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you about how I came to be on this stage, and how I think we can all put our profession onto a surer footing. It’s a story in 3 acts.  It has a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution. Without further ado then, I give you... 

Act I: The Setup

I’ve been in the classroom for 12 years and my career hasn’t been a straightforward one. Whose is? Sparing you the details, two years ago I hit a wall. My health left me and I was left contemplating never seeing the inside of a classroom again, and it horrified me. Teaching’s perhaps unique in this: that a day off sick is wracked with guilt, and a week feels like fighting withdrawal. Imagine three months.

How did it come about? Six of the eight years I worked at my previous school were spent in special measures. (It wasn’t all my doing, I promise!) In that time, I saw three different headteachers come and go, each with their own version of ‘What Ofsted wants’, and their own regime for achieving it. Sometimes more than one regime! Simultaneously! All stratagems and no strategy.  All motto and no ethos.

I can’t do justice in the time I’ve got to the instability of working in that climate. I saw colleagues made redundant and others pushed out; I saw many leave the school, and some leave the profession altogether. Most were outstanding. All were capable of being. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up with it all. I still can’t shake the feeling that we were all set up to fail.

If I can draw a parallel, it seems to me the teaching profession is itself at that stage, with a recruitment and retention ‘challenge’, incidence of mental health problems said to be on the rise among teachers and students, and a constantly shifting framework of policy and accountability.
Like I was, I think the teaching profession is down, but not out. I knew I didn’t want to be anything less than a teacher. And it was that belief that got me back on my feet and back in the classroom.  As teachers, we know we don’t want to be anything less than trusted professionals, and it is this belief that will get us back into the policy making circle. Let’s face it: Right now, we are nowhere near it.

We need to believe policies have our interests and those of our students at heart, and we need to believe in ourselves and our ability to implement those policies. Without that, nothing in education can ever truly succeed, because teaching is an ethical profession.

I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be ethical professionals.  Through it, we should look to decide for ourselves what standards we will be held to, and what training we want and need. In other words, what is valuable to us, what makes us valuable, and what our values are. Without that, we have no professional identity. We are left with nothing but the labels others pin on us to define us.

Anyway, enough about the college. Let’s talk about me.

Act II: The Confrontation

It was very odd approaching teaching again after time out, after leaving a school whose community, as leader of parental engagement, I had worked so hard with, and whose families had worked their way into my heart. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. So I was wary of investing myself emotionally again. Of course, you can’t teach like that. You can’t play it safe. At least I can’t – not very well. As teachers we confront so many problems, our own and others’.

What I realised after a while was that I was actually in a position of some strength. Until that point, I felt schools were shopping for us, for me, with their job specifications and person specifications, essential and desirable skills, and I had to dress myself up on paper to meet their requirements. It also meant I had to be competitive. I had to beat you to the job.

That protectionism that came, for me, as a result of my illness, led me to a new position: I was shopping for an employer who wouldn’t treat me like that again. And you know what? It had nothing to do with Ofsted ratings or league table rankings, and everything to do with ethos. (Remember ethos? That was Act I.)  I was shopping for a school as much as a school was shopping for a teacher, and it made every conversation about a job a confrontation on equal terms.

But no confrontation is easy.  And perhaps that’s why teaching isn’t. Daily we are confronted with choices to make, students to prioritise, and a workload that keeps on growing.

What keeps me going is knowing that I’m supported. When I got back on my feet, I had support from so many that I can’t list them all here. Chief among them my union, ex-colleagues, teacher friends, and even an Ofsted inspector who’d once walked into my classroom and made me cry. (Long story. Great guy.) I started tweeting, and found I’d wandered into the largest staffroom in the world.

We need to be supported as teachers. When we make our tough choices on a daily basis, we need to be trusted to make them. We need to be autonomous, but not alone, in making those choices. And we need to know that when we make mistakes, we are no less professional, because we learn from them. Building on that, we need to be partners in the development of education policy, be it in our schools, our multi-academy trusts, our regions or nationally, because teaching is a collaborative profession.

I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be collaborative professionals. With it, we should look to build networks of support for every aspect of our practice so that we never confront a new situation alone. Without that, we have no professional society. We are each walking a tightrope, which I’m sure you’re alright with, but as for me...

it’s a beautiful risk too far without a safety net.

Act III – A Resolution

As part of my fightback to fitness, I made a resolution. I’ve never stuck to one before, but this one has stuck to me. I decided to take charge of my own CPD and to look beyond my classroom walls. I started tweeting, as I mentioned before, but I also started attending conferences, going to the places where decisions about my profession were being made, but where very few teachers are ever to be seen, and events where I’d always wanted to go but had never had the energy or never made the time for.

I went to ResearchEd and my eyes opened to a whole new world of professional learning. I went back a year later, and walked out to write a book. I’d met Rene Kneyber after his presentation on a book called Flip The System, and it sang to me. I went off and read the book and was determined we needed a UK version, so with two colleagues, one of whom teaches in York and whom I’d never met until that day, the other of whom was one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned had left my last school, we put together a proposal for Routledge, and we’ve just recently signed the contract.

I’ll never again be the teacher I was before my illness. For what seemed like an age, that felt like a loss. Now, I’m not so sure it is.

By engaging with my profession at every level, from classroom practice to political philosophies of education, I know more about teaching and my place in it than I ever have. That’s enriched my teaching, and it’s made me more resilient.

We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.

So I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be informed professionals. By it, we should look to engage with the best that has been thought and said about teaching so that we too can stand on the shoulders of giants and share the view with our students. Without that, we have no professional capital. We are left with myths parading as facts and our resolve worn away by accountability procedures that do nothing to improve educational outcomes.

That brings me to the end of this story, and you’ll have noticed it’s a bit of a cliffhanger. Will they? Won’t they? What happens next?  That is the story we have yet to write together: the story of how teachers became true professionals. I hope the College Of Teaching will be instrumental in that. I hope Flip The System UK will be too. I know for a fact that if it doesn’t come from each of us, it won’t come at all, and so I leave you to ponder what we have… 

What could have been… 

And what might be…

Thank you.


  1. This is a truly amazing presentation. You have articulated all I personally have gone through. Thank you for writing and speaking so eloquently everything I have gone through during my teaching career. Thank you for your amazing support in sad days ... thank you for the happiness through the rare good days. You are truly a gift teacher, writer, father and friend.

    1. Aw Sue! Thank you so much. I was thinking of you when I wrote it. And a few others... Xxx

  2. Nice one, J-L, I've been meaning to share something with you for a while but keep forgetting where it is stored. So, I made a concerted effort this afternoon and dug it up again. Hope you like it

    1. I've heard a lot about Japanese research lessons. There's a developing trend here for lesson study based on it. I hope it won't translate here into a directed activity that actually narrows the spectrum of teacher activity. I'm sure you can see how that might come to pass...
      I'm looking forward to reading this. Everything else I've seen has been secondary sources so far.

    2. Yes, I see the risk but understand the authentic practice to be owned by the profession. A bit like the demonstration element you sometimes find at teachmeets. Keep fighting the good fight. Chat soon

    3. Yes, I see the risk but understand the authentic practice to be owned by the profession. A bit like the demonstration element you sometimes find at teachmeets. Keep fighting the good fight. Chat soon

    4. Authenticity is definitely key.

  3. What a great blog. Especially that recognition of when we are 'being set up to fail' and the need for us to be an informed profession. Twitter restored my faith in us as teachers too, even the ones I disagree with!

    1. Thanks, Kate. Ethical, collaborative and informed are the defining features of our profession. It's important we ensure that this is a two-way relationship. We need to be creators of knowledge, providers of support and promoters of ethos.
      I'm really very grateful for your engagement on Twitter and your taking the time to comment.

  4. Thank you, well written. I come from a different arena in education but the themes repeat. I look forward to running into you again at another Twitter chat or conference.

    1. Thank you, Emily. I look forward to it too.

  5. This is beautiful JL! Recently I was chatting on Iesha Small's blog about this enforced bow-out (from illness, or stress etc) so many of us have experienced leads to a coming back afterwards knowing that our lowest was not the end of the world and how this seems to put us in a stronger position to hold our own than before. From what I've seen, those who've been though this see ways around issues more fluidly than those still trying to avoid the burnout. Maybe because we've developed more of a 'f**k it!' feeling to draw from? Great to read your words.

    1. Leah, I'm so sorry. My account has been playing tricks on me and I had no idea your comment was here until it was revealed to me tonight!
      You're absolutely right about the 'f**k it' attitude. We've learned the hard way to prioritise ourselves, I think. There are those lucky people who never have to learn that lesson. They seem predisposed to it. Although I envy them sometimes, I've learned to be grateful for the richness of understanding and empathy the experience has given me. I read that you're moving on to new things now. I wish you the very best of luck. You deserve every success you get. :)


Thanks for engaging. I aim to respond to all the feedback I get because that's why I write: To share ideas.