Time for An Upgrade?

Upgrading My Thinking

As part of my daily routine for generating potential visitors to Little Songbird’s site I spend about an hour scrolling through the vast array of other LinkedIn participants’ photos, names and how they choose to identify themselves. Typically there is a fairly nondescript photo followed by the person’s name and job title–and the occasional “Inspired Person Existing” or “Believer In All Good Things” types of monikers.

As the proud owner of the soon-to-launch Little Songbird: Songs for Learning (LSS4L) I am looking to connect primarily with PreK – 3 educators, homeschooling folks, librarians, college education professors, child care directors and the like. As I scan the rows and rows of possible connections my eye immediately goes not to the photo or name but to their self-selected description. I’ve found it particularly interesting to see the high numbers of people who have identified themselves as “Professional Educator” or “Professional Early Childhood Educator.” Are we not all in the profession of educating? Why do some choose to include the adjective “professional” as part of their job title? I have not noted any “Professional Plumbers” or “Professional Bloggers” or “Professional Parents” (though I’m sure there will be a few now!). What does it mean to be a professional educator?

Merriam-Webster suggests that professionalism is “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” We know that a college education provides the most universally accepted training for teachers but that is not all there is to good teaching; teaching is an art and a science. Do we emerge from higher education with skills? Certainly. Every day we demonstrate our abilities to plan and implement lessons, organize the children to go to recess and lunch, and make sure their Important Papers make it into their backpacks at the end of the day. But how do we learn good judgment and polite behavior? Those intangibles seem to be more of the “art” of teaching rather than the “science” of teaching. Their definition does not seem to capture the term “professionalism” and all that it entails.

The online Random House Dictionary provides a bit more of the essence of professionalism: “character, spirit, or methods…the practice..of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.”

But when, where and how are character and spirit taught? We surely know that one person’s definition of “polite behavior” or “character” can be different from another’s version. Are there behaviors that encompass professionalism that can be learned with experience?

Intangible Qualities

The intangible qualities like character, spirit and good judgment have their genesis in a person’s innate traits, but they can be modeled and learned with repeated meaningful opportunities. Consider what young Scout gleaned from her attorney-father, Atticus, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her judgment, values, integrity, spirit and character were being molded by her heroic father and the experiences she encountered throughout the book (and into the sequel, for those who have read it).

I believe one quality that defines us as “professional” educators rather than merely “teachers” is the depth of commitment to learning–for ourselves as well as our students and colleagues. Professional educators (whether in a classroom, music room, library or family kitchen) spend quality time learning new information, integrating new ideas, and reflecting–to themselves as well as with colleagues–on how those experiences inform their work for the future.

Another quality of professional educators is their desire not only to teach a student a particular skill, but to guide them to see the many ways in which that skill can be applied to all types of life situations. Akin to the expression, “If you give a man a fish he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime,” professional educators are dedicated to providing the pole, the bait and the impetus to fish while allowing the learner the opportunity to cast, fail, reflect, try, fail and then succeed–encouraging and coaching with each step in the process. Professional educators realize that learning is a process that envelopes both the learner and the learned.

Agencies, School Districts, organizations and Public Policy makers have all attempted to identify those qualities that constitute a “professional” educator by creating merit-based pay and reward systems in exchange for high scores on standardized tests. In my way of thinking none of that can actually move someone from teacher to professional because professionalism is a belief in always acting in the best interest of the students, not the district, parents, principals or even themselves. I’m not condoning a revolution in which educators disregard all policies and outsiders, but I am suggesting that a professional educator is himself educated enough to know what is best for the students in front of him, and is willing to go out on a limb to provide the best possible education for each student in his care. A professional exemplifies his integrity by being sure that his actions match his beliefs.

It’s All About Attitude

Professionalism turns out to be more of an attitude of commitment and integrity than a skill to be checked off an evaluation. It is the difference between the teacher who leaves school when the students do (or the minute their contract allows) and the educators who stick around to spend their unpaid time to meet with a colleague who is struggling, a parent who needs to troubleshoot, or a student who needs a boost of confidence. It is the difference between the teacher who resents having to work with students over a lunch break because it takes up her free time and the educator who invites struggling readers in for a Bag Lunch Booktalk. It is the difference between the teacher who makes those hasty decisions to cut corners (“I can just share this copyrighted workbook with my team if I make photocopies.”) and the educator who values and respects the work and rights of the author–being an author of many important documents (lesson plans, grant proposals, IEPs, Parent letters, letters to politicians, etc) himself. Professional educators model exemplary behavior–yes, politeness, positive spirit and good judgment– for colleagues as well as students.

I think I could safely say that I’ve been a teacher for thirty years, but I’ve been a professional educator for about 25. It took me a bit of time to realize that I was not going to be satisfied to be a teacher–I needed to offer more of myself to parents and colleagues: my integrity, my passion and my faith in my students– if I wanted to be a professional. And while I am not always the “consummate professional” I intend to be, I can go home every night knowing that I made my best effort. If I miss my mark, I reset my sights on exemplifying professionalism again the next day because I want people to know when they see my name and title on LinkedIn–or anywhere else–that I am proud to be a Professional Educator.

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Resources:

professionalism. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved September 01, 2015, from Merriam-Webster.com website: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/professionalism

professionalism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved September 01, 2015, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/professionalism

This blog was also posted September 2, 2015 on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/linkedin-learnings-lisa-heintz?trk=prof-post

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