Engagement, Opinion, Teaching

A Case for Teachers to Develop Professional Wisdom

More than just training, effective pro-d should raise teaching from a trade to a profession

The knowledge and skill that would make a teacher more effective is boundless and the essence of professionalism is to constantly strive to improve, so it is clear that ongoing learning is essential for those who lay claim to professional status. What is less clear is what actually must be learned.

It’s certainly good to have an extensive repertoire of instructional techniques to support different types of learners and keep things fresh in the classroom, but teaching is much more than technique. Instructional expertise is necessary, but it‘s not sufficient.

The essential foundational ability for a teacher is to establish a trusting connection with a student that provides safety, support and encouragement, which invites intellectual engagement. Professors can simply profess and instructors can simply instruct, but teachers must, first and foremost, connect with their students.

Instruction is an important skill, of course, and it should be responsive to students but it is essentially impersonal and relatively standardized. In many cases it could be provided by technology such as the Khan Academy offers. But this should not be confused with teaching. It claims to provide “a free world-class education” but what it actually provides is training, not education.

Teaching involves much more than skillful instruction. It also involves motivation, encouragement, challenge, support and guidance within a trusting, human relationship and results not only in the acquisition of knowledge and development of skills but also in the inculcation of attitudes and nurturing of dispositions that shape a person’s self-concept and worldview. A teacher can make good use of the Khan Academy resources but the Khan Academy by itself can no more provide education than can Wikipedia.

There is neither prescription nor uniform “best practice” in education because individuals are so unique and learn in different ways. A teacher must, therefore, establish a partnership with the learner as an individual. Needless to say, the batch processing that goes on in a secondary school makes this a challenge, but effective teachers do find a way to connect with students in ways that make them feel seen, heard and valued as individuals. In the absence of this connection, there is only instruction and, in all likelihood, academic engagement at best.[1]

Therefore, while learning new subject content, instructional techniques and technology skills are useful, professional development should go much further. To be worthy of the name, pro-d should strive to develop the passionate engagement and practical wisdom of teaching as well. It should involve teachers in collective inquiry that transforms the job into a vocation and fuels both commitment and fulfillment in ways that no amount of training in techniques can ever accomplish. The teacher’s deep engagement then invites students’ deep engagement and so a virtuous circle is established to the betterment of both.

The “development” in professional development is about all the things that a professional teacher needs to know, to do and to be that can only be learned by reflecting on experience within a community of practice with other professionals who are also striving to understand, to grow and to be the best they can be.

This truly professional pro-d is much more than collegial support. It is focused and sustained inquiry into the enduring dilemmas of teaching and learning in a school setting through which teachers not only support but also challenge each other in a struggle for continuous improvement marked by an ethical commitment to the ideals of the profession and the best interests of their students. It is what raises teaching from a trade to a profession.

[1] “Academic engagement,” as defined by CEA in its What Did You Do In School Today research, is limited to diligent compliance with school requirements – what students call “doing school.”  It is insufficient for transformational outcomes, which require a more sincere and internally motivated commitment to learning that CEA terms “intellectual engagement.”

This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on the state of Teacher PD in Canada, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Teachers as Learners theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, What is Effective Teacher Professional Development? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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