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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The Professionalism Issue – Divya

On Getting It Right & Getting It Out There – Divya Madhavan

Divya Madhavan

I work in Academia. The land whose billboards sometimes carry clever maxims like “publish or perish” or, as I’ve argued elsewhere “research says…”

Publish or perish is a fairly hollow cluster of words. It reduces professional culture to its most mechanical state; ticking the survival box. It emphasises, or rather downsizes, professional growth in terms of hard and fast cut-off points and recognition more through rules and less through ideas. Every game has its rules of course, but it’s the ideas that flourish within these rules that ultimately make us want to remain a part of the play.

I was recently asked why I wanted to write a thesis, why I didn’t consider publishing articles and then compiling them into a thesis, that way I’d establish a bibliographic train to my graduation gown. What’s intriguing here isn’t so much the different routes to getting a doctorate, but that this suggestion of a publication route was perceived as ‘getting the job done’ (and thus perhaps lowering my odds of perishing?).

I make these statements about norms and thresholds not because I am an academic who hasn’t published much (ahem…yet 😉 ) I say this because I believe in bringing down barriers to good ideas. Just like I don’t believe that research is only valid if done by a PhD holder, I don’t think publication in this or that journal is what makes an academic great. Surely the standard of greatness doesn’t just belong journal editors. Academics also lecture, mentor, supervise and look after students…and are on a very profound level, teachers.

My reason for blogging about the publication barrier here is because I see so many people struggle within my practice. From senior colleagues who forcefully wedge themselves into co-authoring spaces to junior colleagues who sweat over writing in languages they haven’t mastered for the sake of this or that journal, publication grade, impact factor, and so on… I’m not alone in expressing my worry regarding such banes of careerism. But what I’d like to do here is share some thoughts on how these rules of the game shape professional identity

For me there are two ways of collocating ‘professional’ and ‘identity’:

  • our professional identity is the one that faces outwards, the profile picture, the careful wording we put into our bios, the time and energy we spend on our presentations, our online presence, as well as our qualifications, affiliations and reputations.
  • our identity as professionals is the one that faces inwards, our personal investment into ourselves as academics, the ethical responsibility we have to our field, the language we use to express this awareness and also the deeper senses of self and persona that we build within ourselves, that make us grow as professionals as well. Why make the distinction? Because I wonder how much of our professional culture actually affords a development of the latter set of ideas.

What does the latter do?

It  obliges us to get it right before getting it out there. To read, to understand, to trial, to admit error, to reframe thoughts and to accept the deeper importance of criticality.

What does the former do?

It makes us accountable.

One of my educational heroes, Gert Biesta talks about a “culture of accountability” within education. This accountability isn’t just technical, managerial or financial, it’s also pretty emotional. And this very important. I am greatly reassured by the fact that my own supervisor has the title ‘Dr.’ before his name for instance, and feel he will do a marvellous job of overseeing my doctorate because he already has one.  But just like the outward facing makes us accountable, the inward facing makes us responsible. Accountable and responsible of course aren’t mutually exclusive qualities but I feel the distinction is worth making as they aren’t quite the same things on an ethical level.

Accountability has to do with the ‘face’ and as Biesta argues, creates economic relationships between people, where we do things for specific gain and advancement, including our professional portrayals. This economic bind might actually make the democracy of ideas more difficult to establish because it will naturally push us towards the box we want to tick.

Why would this be a problem?

Because it can formalize our professional dynamics away from the people who lie at the heart of education, namely teachers and students.

What is the use in my separating these ideas into the inward facing responsibility and the outward facing accountability?

To tease out the locus of control that we all have when it comes to our identities and our professions and that it is the balance of the face that looks out and the face that looks in that creates an identity that is integral and ethical.

Professional ethics isn’t a buzzword. Nor an academic formality, nor a tool or fix that will make us better teachers. It’s just something that concerns us all, that’s a little under-represented in today’s landscape of professional development. It’s something that lies at the heart of practice as the face in the mirror that we look at before looking out to our peers.

Biesta, G. (2010) Good education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics and Democracy. Paradigm Publishers


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The Professionalism Issue – Jeffrey

An Acrostic For Professionalism – Jeffrey Doonan

Jeffrey Doonan

“It is difficult, if not impossible, for those who do not perform to be good judges of the performance of others.”

Aristotle, from ‘The Politics: Book VIII’

Having been asked to write a piece on the topic of Professionalism. I immediately said “yes”, thinking to myself: “I’ve been teaching for 25 years now, I know what it takes to do well in this profession.”  Therein was my first mistake; profession and professional may be relatives but they are not twins. According to the big, ever-present Merriam -Webster dictionary on my desk, ‘profession’ was defined as “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.” The same dictionary told me that ‘professional’ meant not only “the conduct, aims or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional” but also “the skills, good judgement and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.”

So, taking these definitions as my start and with the implied attributes as my guide, I came up with the following acrostic which defines how I view professionalism.

Principled and polite preparedness: An educator needs to be guided and guide by a set of principles. Whether these are the product of our past academic preparation, our formal education, or if they have been learned along the way, throughout the years on the job, we must constantly exercise them in a courteous and professional manner. We must always be prepared to teach, to learn, and to be ready to explain ‘why’ whenever our principled approach is questioned and to do so in a polite, dignified way.

Readiness, respect:  A professional teacher must always be ready to work with others, even when those others may be hesitant or even unwilling to work with or for us. This readiness to work also includes the readiness to teach and learn as well, for each new class, possibly even each new student must be learned in order to be taught. Exhibiting this readiness to work with others in most instances springs from respect, both for and from those others.

Organizational skills or competencies:  A committed, organized teacher is one who exhibits the competencies to rise to any number of challenges and to do the job to the best of his or her abilities. As a  professional educator they are reliable, from the perspective of their fellow faculty and administration and even more importantly, from the perspective of their students. A teacher that is organized will realize that not all of the students in front of them will share the same levels of knowledge and interest in the class. That teacher must make use of all of his professional competencies to make sure that once the ‘knowledge is imparted’, once the information has been shared, that all of the students then have the necessary time, chance and opportunities to absorb and assimilate it.

Fairiness: Whether it be dealing with the administration, colleagues, parents or students, all must be dealt with, listened to and handled fairly and in accordance with the institution’s and your own principled guidelines. Even most people who may disagree with you will recognize fairness.

Engagement with education: While scholarship has to be accurate, education has to be interesting. It is the ability to stir an interest in all students that makes for a good educator because it is the interest stirred in a discussion or a class session that inspires a student to continue. Many times it is just an interesting comment or lesson that can have a lifelong impact on a student. The earlier definition mentioned that a profession required “specialized knowledge”. If one cannot impart that knowledge in an interesting and engaging manner, time in class may just be time wasted.  One who truly educates does not say everything, he allows room for the students, the learners to think things out for themselves, for personal discovery. The professional educator knows that true learning leads to…

Self-Reliance:  A professional will be aware of just how far his skills and knowledge will take him and just how far he should go. A teacher should know when to be an independent thinker, when to move away from ‘the coursebook’, and when to allow his students that independent, encouraging self-reliance.


“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

Ralph W. Emerson, from ‘Self-Reliance’

Supportive: On the student’s quest for knowledge they will need trust and courage to become an independent learner. A professional teacher will exhibit the “skill and good judgement that is expected” to allow them to do such. This may be one of the hardest points in the professional’s development: learning when it is time to step back and let the learning, that has traditionally been your domain, to blossom and grow. If we can develop our emotional intelligence so as to understand when the skills have been sufficiently learned, to trust our learners, they will also trust us as a form of support.

Innovative: Change happens and as professionals we need to be ready to adapt and be open to such inevitable developments. We need to know how to introduce the beneficial developments into our teaching so as to enhance the learning environment that we create in our classrooms. We also need to know how to maintain what has always worked for us in the face of all of these innovations. Change for the sake of change is not always best.

Open-minded:  A professional should possess both honesty and integrity yet also have the ability to remain open-minded. It is my belief that an open-minded approach is the only way to “do our job well” when we as educators encounter so many dfferent people and situations.

Nurturing:  Teachers need to nurture an interest in what they teach. We need to nurture the relationships we have with our students and colleagues. For many teachers the relationships they have with the community and with the local businesses are also extremely important and must be handled in a professional yet nurturing manner so as to keep things functioning smoothly and professionally.

Attitude and appearance: This goes well beyond the idea of “walk the walk and talk the talk.” A professional will exhibit “the conduct and aims or qualities” that make him a professional, it becomes second nature. While every culture and institution will have their own rules and codes of conduct, a professional image is much the same everywhere. A positive, professional attitude may not necessarily mean you are the most qualified, but it may suggest a sense of confidence and accountability, both good traits for all students to see and to develop.

Llifelong learning: On our way to becoming teachers we have spent many years learning, developing and honing many types of knowledge – and this must continue as a lifelong practice. In many places Professional Development is required and as a professional teacher this should be viewed more as an opportunity than as a requirement. It should be viewed as a chance to learn and to further develop. For if we as teachers lose that spark to learn and develop, how can we impart it to those who come to our classes each day?

Independent:  Be it! Teach it! A community of independent individuals are the building blocks for a successful classroom. Independence does not mean that all may do whatever they want, it should mean that all have learned to be a member of a group, the class, without a great deal of external compulsion to comply. The Montessori Method.

A professional teacher should conduct himself, act and behave according to his status and personal beliefs. A professional teacher should also know how to impart this to and expect it from his students.

Student-oriented:  Although this may sound cliche, like a topical buzzword, they are after all why the profession exists. They are why we pursue the knowledge we have and why we make such an effort to learn how to share it. The real profession that we are all “trained to do well” in is to help our students to learn. So if we do not really know them, their needs, wants, likes and dislikes, how can we possibly succeed?

As Alfred North Whitehead once said: “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is a man who possesses both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction.” The direction that a professional teacher’s knowledge should follow is in the direction that will most benefit their student’s needs.

Maltitudes:  We, as professional teachers, encounter a multitude of students each term, each year, and so we must possess a multitude of approaches and methods so as to be able to reach the majority of them. My “intensive academic preparation” and “the qualities that characterize and mark (me as) a professional person” have prepared me in a multitude of ways to deal with all of these challenges, and yet I learn.

So, as with beauty, perhaps professionalism is also much in the eye of the beholder. There are certain cultural, institutional and personal things that we can do, many mentioned above, to be seen as professionals in our chosen fields. My goal has always been to try to achieve the balance between what allows me to feel professional and for others to view me that way.

“No aspect of education is to be disparaged; it is the highest blessing bestowed on mankind, and it is the best of them on whom it is most fully bestowed.”

Plato, from ‘The Republic’


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The Professionalism Issue

How do teachers create, maintain, and build their professional identities? How is professionalism different from profession? Does our professionalism as educators have more to do with how we see ourselves or with how others see us? How much does it depend on who, where, and what we teach? In The Professionalism Issue, Divya Madhaven, Jeffrey Donnan, and Chuck Sandy offer three different perspectives and an abundance of professionalism.

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
Divya Madhavan
Divya Madhavan
Jeffrey Doonan
Jeffrey Doonan


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