Chuck Sandy

The Professionalism Issue – Chuck

Home Cooked Professionalism – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

“You thought you knew what food was” but “forgot how much restaurant there was in restaurant food and how much home was in homemade,” writes novelist Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, a book that is not about food at all, nor about teaching, although it is about learning:  learning to see what’s truly important as one strips one’s life of self-deception, denial, gloss, and illusion.  In some way, I’ve come to see that making those same sorts of corrections in their lives and in their teaching is what the best teachers do as they progress through their career, becoming as they do, increasingly less restaurant and more homemade.

When I first started out as a teacher, I had a pretty clear idea in mind of what professionalism meant and what good teaching was, but I was all restaurant in those days: full of theory, full of dogma, full of myself. Like most new teachers, I hid behind the safety-net such things provide and while I probably taught lessons that were technically proficient, I’m not at all sure how much I taught anyone.

Still, each day I’d dress up like a teacher, show up on time with the lesson plans I was required to submit to my supervisor, and teach from those lesson plans without veering far from the script I’d prepared. Meanwhile, I began subscribing to the best professional journals, started presenting at conferences, and before long had become the supervisor that other teachers submitted their lesson plans to for approval.  This is when things got both better and worse.

Clearly, I was on a fast-moving professional track, and in terms of career, this was very good. Before too many more years went by, I was writing textbooks and traveling at my publisher’s expense to tell teachers near and far what good teaching is and why they should get on with it. Back then, it was all about the Communicative Approach, which at that time had become almost a religion in English Language Teaching, because if teachers weren’t Communicative Approach teachers, then what were they? They were holdouts and traditionalists, doing it all wrong. They weren’t of course, but I thought they were, and in the name of professionalism I worked to convince them that they were, and that’s not just bad, that’s very wrong.

I cringe when I think now of how what I was actually doing was working to take the home out of homemade teaching and replace it with a corporate, mass-produced version of chain-restaurant education … in the name of professionalism.  To make things worse, most of my ELT heroes in those days, the true professionals, I thought, and the ones I aspired to be more like, were those people doing the same things I was doing, only more of it, more dogmatically, and more successfully.

Well, that was twenty years ago, and all I can do now is apologize and say I was wrong, while also working to correct those wrongs, correct and better myself, and offer up a totally revised definition of professionalism along with a new, much more authentic group of heroes: the working-dedicated-to-learning-how-to-be-better teachers in the international teaching community.

Today, the most professional teachers I know do not often teach in universities, publish paradigm-shifting textbooks, write many academic articles, or strive to do much more than become great teachers while actively encouraging their peers to do the same. They openly share what they’re learning on blogs and social media posts. They voluntarily serve as mentors to newer teachers with the idea that by doing so they’ll be learning something new about teaching as well. They initiate collaborative projects that they invite others to join as equals, get involved in initiatives like ELTChat and organizations like iTDi, and enthusiastically embrace opportunities to grow professionally. My new heroes are the teachers who exemplify this spirit of a new home-cooked professionalism and often write of it so beautifully as James Taylor does here his blog post entitled Just Say Yes.

Then, there are those teachers who take stands against movements and pedagogies in education they believe are damaging. My new heroes are also the ones who feel so strongly about education that they wind up resigning from very professional positions in order to fight for their students. These are teachers like Meg Norris who writes about this in her post, To My Students: I Love You and I Believe In You.

And then, there are teacher heroes like Kiran Bir Sethi who not only believe they can change the world, but do change the world with a movement like Design For Change which began in a single classroom in India five years ago and now involves over 35,000,000 students and their heroic teachers in more than 24 different countries.

Not long ago, Kiran told me that one of the reasons she believes Design For Change spread so quickly is because “when people contacted us wanting to bring Design For Change to their own country, we replied immediately, let them know they’re part of a larger idea, explained why they should do it, not how they should do it, and made them partners. We want them to be able to say, ‘This is now our story, not Kiran’s story anymore’ and this is an important concept.”

What I believe Kiran is saying here is that she created a structure and an approach that encouraged teachers to put more home in homemade, while not requiring them to be restaurant at all. Then, she stepped back and let them get on with it.

Notice how different this approach to professionalism is from my 20-years-ago-do-it-my-way-chain-restaurant-version. Notice, how different James Taylor’s vision is. And then there’s Meg Norris out there fighting for her students’ rights.  Notice now this sort of professionalism is mostly about heart and hardly about self.

Home-cooked. Filled with heart. Focused on others.  Giving more than getting. That’s the sort of professionalism I now believe in and try my wavering best to live by.


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Chuck Sandy

Chuck is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with 30 years of experience in the US, Japan and Brazil. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press and the Active Skills For Communication series from Cengage Learning. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world. Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. This is the reason he has built a Facebook group with over 9000 teachers from 24 countries that meet for ongoing educational discussions. It is also the reason he has worked to introduce Design For Change into Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Russia.

7 thoughts on “The Professionalism Issue – Chuck”

  1. Hi Chuck, I read your blog with great interest,
    But I do have one major difficulty with the overarching premise that all chain restaurants’ cooking is inherently “bad” and all home cooking is “good”! Oh! If only life in the real world were that simple!
    In my humble opinion, all teachers exhibit both good and bad, professional and non-professional qualities during their careers. Often it comes down to the Big 3Ds: Presentation, Presentation, Presentation, A very bad Prmsentation can persuade a gullible audience into believing , rightly or wrongly , that the content is somehow inferior. Imagine Shakespeare being read aloud by a bad stutterer ! Yoiks!! Tally ho!

    But I doubt if anything I have said here will impress a “past master” such as your good self. Just so much more water under the bridge for you I expect . Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post, Chuck.

    I was able to think back into the beginning of my career as a teacher and how I’ve come so far, still in ELT. Many decide to go the other way after the first years teaching, some keep on working because they believe in professionalism and ELT as a career.

    I do believe we change our views along the way and we end up deciding where we want to go. There are different paths and some of those paths are more about the money than being a professional. That’s where I believe things go wrong. If you’re in this for the money, there’s still space for you as the market’s demand has been higher every year. However, if you think about professionalism, plan your career and believe in what you do, then you’ll go far.

    Thinking about professionalism is knowing what is to come and working hard to achieve that. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll have loads of instructors of English rather than educators.

  3. Hi, Chuck
    A great post!
    The dichotomy made between restaurant food and homemade food sounds interesting to me. The same thing applies to the fact that many teachers think theories of learning and teaching are not that helpful in making professional teachers. They think that professionalism is mainly of practical concern and should be acquired as they are involved in actual language teaching in the classroom. However, Brown (2007) speaks of “believing game” and “doubting game” whereby teachers should not entirely rule out the role of theories and render the whole thing as impractical. At the same time they should take an analytic approach to the application of these theories and their attendant procedures. In fact, teachers are not to be sole consumers of what theorists produce. They can develop theories which can be tested, revised, and verified in some sort of action research.

  4. Thanks Chuck for being so kind and caring to encourage us to pursue professionalism that goes beyond the simplist view of earning certificates/degrees/diplomas. If only that was enough. If only it was that simple. It is quite common for people to enrol themselves in university and study for years and get out with so much theory but not enough to deal with the everyday. At some point some will blame university for not preparing them for the challenges they have to face in they have to go and teach. Others will blame students. And naturally most will not blame the system ever. For me it all comes down to praxis, or better say the lack of it. We are trained to copy, to give the right answers, to pursue the right answers but without thinking about them ourselves. It starts in school and goes all the way up to graduation.
    Have you ever read Rubem Alves? I think you would like him very much if you haven’t. A post dedicated to Malu Sciamarelli and Rubem Alves in my blog. I hope you like it. I see similar lines of thinking here.

  5. Hello Chuck

    I will truly say that i was touched by all these experiences and teaching journeys you have mentioned.And i liked the fact that you care a lot about this noble profession.The restaurant and homemade thing you talked about reminded me of a great university teacher who was in the habit of using a lot of food and life examples to explain tough points and it was really paying off.Thanks again for sharing your valuable experiences!!

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