Is teaching a profession? Discuss.

The previous Coalition government announced a few years ago that Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) will no longer be required to teach in Academy and Free schools. I’m not sure it was a good move if they wanted to re-assure people that they thought teaching was a “profession”.

I was at a party once and a fellow guest asked me what I did for a living. I answered: “By profession, I’m a teacher.”

“Ah well, teaching isn’t a profession is it?” he replied. When I asked him why he held that view he said:

“Because teachers are prepared to go on strike. Members of real professions don’t go on strike.”

By any standards, that’s a pretty narrow definition of a profession. But I do ask this question of all the new teachers I meet: ‘Is teaching a profession?’

Most say “Yes, of course..!” but then I ask them to define ‘a profession’ and how it is different from any other kind of job. Then I get a wide variety of response. For example, some say: “Professions like teaching are usually respected, trusted and are expected to be role models.” Others add that to enter a profession “usually requires education, training, qualifications, commitment, dedication and even passion.” Some demur and say: “ok… but that definition can include electricians, hairdressers and car mechanics too”.

I agree with that, at least to a point. My car mechanic probably has all those attributes – he certainly has passion for cars and seems very dedicated to my satisfaction as a customer.

But I wonder whether as a member of the public and particularly as a parent, I would expect the same things from an electrician, plumber, hairdresser or car mechanic as I would from a doctor, solicitor or my child‘s teacher…?

And that’s where I realise I do expect something different.

For example, I know for a fact that my car mechanic has no qualifications in car mechanics though he’s been mending my car for years and he’s brilliant at it. To be honest with you, it doesn’t bother me that he hasn’t… he’s a great car mechanic and does a really good job mending my car at a good price.

But it would bother me if my child’s teacher wasn’t qualified. For some reason, I want to know that the person standing in front of my child is properly trained and qualified to do that job to the high standard we all expect.

Going back to my car mechanic: He’s a very nice guy, but I don’t know anything about him.  I’ve no idea about his background for example… whether he’s ever had a serious conviction for let’s say, grievous bodily harm or dealing in Class A drugs.

Should it be an issue for me if he has?  I’ll be honest. It’s not. All I’m concerned about is whether he does a good job on my car at a reasonable price. What he’s done in his background or private life is of no concern to me.

But what if my child’s teacher has a conviction for grievous bodily harm or dealing in Class A drugs…?

Mmm… now I have to say that’s a question I’d be much more interested in knowing the answer to.

That’s not to say that society shouldn’t forgive foolish mistakes done by people in a mis-spent youth. But – call me old fashioned – I think most people would have some concerns that would need re-assurance.

We still expect something extra from the likes of doctors, nurses, lawyers and yes, teachers that we don’t necessarily expect from the likes of electricians, plumbers, hairdressers and car mechanics. It may be related to rather ill-defined concepts like ‘trust’ or ‘reputation’ or an even more ill-defined concept like ‘being a role model’.  Whatever it is…  I think that expectation still exists and is real.

That’s not to say my car mechanic isn’t ‘professional’.  He is. He’s very professional.

But is he a member of  ‘a profession’?


Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now gives lectures funny but thought-provoking lectures on professional and ethical issues to teacher-trainees at universities and SCITT & School Direct training centres all over the country.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him as a speaker to your ITT students. 

He runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.


6 thoughts on “Is teaching a profession? Discuss.

  1. My take on teaching being a profession is around CPD. If teaching was like medicine, law or accountancy, CPD would be a requirement for ongoing registration.

    See my blog post coming out tomorrow for more on this…


    1. I’ll look forward to reading your views on your blog. A requirement for CPD is an interesting issue and the GTC for example, decided not to go down that road, opting instead for a voluntary system (the Teacher Learning Academy). Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that required CPD is ‘good CPD’ – as many doctors, lawyers and accountants will tell you, they sometimes go through the motions of ‘portfolio hours’ just to fulfill the registration requirement. Which is part of the reason why the GTC wanted to opt for a system where teachers would be supported to identify real CPD needs rather than ticking a box. I’ll look forward to your blog. Thanks for the post.

  2. For me, teachers are a unique kind of professional. In Scotland, one reason for the introduction of the McCrone agreement was to further professionalize teaching, or raise the status of teachers. This seemed to move the focus away from teaching as a committed vocation, instead aiming for a shorter working week and better pay. This may be deserved, but traditionally teachers were seen to hold a responsible role in society that transcended the 9-5 working week.
    Professionalism on the other hand seems to refer more to the quality of teaching, the trust based in teachers (voted by public as second most trustworthy profession after doctors) and to the ethical concerns that their job also entails. Yet, it also refers to the ability to make autonomous decisions and I think teaching benefits from collegiality. Therefore, teaching can’t be defined by traditional models of the professional but requires a certain type of person that perhaps car mechanics does not.

    1. Hi – that’s such an interesting comment, thanks a lot for posting. You cover a lot of ground too – like ‘the quality of teaching’ which of course be one of the issues that differentiates expectations of teaching assistants from qualified teachers. I think the really interesting issue you raise is the point about ‘autonomous decisions’ and collegiality. As you rightly say, teaching is a profession where people can confer and take advice from each other based on shared values. But does that also mean that ‘responsibility’ for those decisions is also diffused? Interesting stuff Tallowl – thanks very much.

  3. During the last few weeks I have been sent loads of forms to fill in before I can start my PGCE. It has begun to dawn on me in more practical terms that I am not just training for a job, but working to enter a profession. There are standards I need to keep, hoops I need to jump through, standards I need to uphold. This isn’t a job, this is a life choice.

    I’ve not yet made my mind up how I feel about going on strike. But I can say this, anyone and everyone can strike, professional or otherwise. It’s a form of protest and everyone has the right to do that. I’m sure if controversial NHS plans has gone through we would have seen some form of it from the medical profession.

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