Essay on Professionalism in Teaching

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This paper critically reviews the concept of professionalism. Despite the best efforts by theorists to define the concept, there is no singular definition. This paper considers political and policy contexts, by reviewing the concepts of, traditional, managerial, and democratic professionalism. I shape my own perspective of professionalism emerging from literature and my school experience to conceptualize a working definition of professionalism. I conclude that my professional identity is shaped by conforming to standards.

What does it mean to be a professional?

The Supporting Teacher Professionalism Report (OECD, 2016) from TALIS 2013 presents teacher professionalism as a composite of three dimensions: knowledge base, autonomy, and peer networks. Knowledge base refers to teachers having a secure understanding of content and engaging in professional development activities. Autonomy explores the decision-making power that teachers have over their work. Peer networks reflect the importance of collaborative working. Hoyle and John (1995) similarly acknowledge that knowledge and autonomy are key defining elements of a professional teacher. They argue that teachers with secure theoretical knowledge and training earn the privilege to exercise their autonomy in the face of uncertain scenarios. However, the authors build on the importance of professional teachers having responsibility, in terms of being held accountable to formal standards, which the OECD definition fails to mention in their definition. The OECD overlooks ethical factors such as honesty, upholding public trust (DfE, 2011), and personal integrity (Carr, 2006; Crook, 2008), which are important considering teachers work in the public domain.

Professionalism can also be considered from a political lens, concerning power relations between teachers and the government, and the degree to which teachers have autonomy in shaping their own professional values. McClelland distinguishes between professionalism “from within” (referring to teacher agency) and “from above” (referring to the government and/or organization) which is a good starting point when considering who has the power to decide on what constitutes professionalism (McClelland, 1990: 107). Traditional professionalism is associated with teachers’ having full autonomy over their work with minimal government intervention (Whitty and Whisby, 2006). Whilst McClelland portrays professionalism “from within” as idealistic, this can be problematic given that traditional professionalism has been criticized as paternalistic and elitist (Davies, 1996) due to a lack of accountability regimes. Sachs (2011) reminds us that accountability should not be viewed in a wholly negative light as it serves to increase public confidence and transparency in the system. McClelland’s interpretation of professionalism imposed “from above” is useful in establishing the discourse of managerial professionalism (Sachs, 2001), which is rooted in compliance with traditional hierarchal systems. The focus is on standardization and regulation against a set of measurable outcomes imposed by the government (O’Day, 2002).

Whitty (2006) asserts the view that teachers have been made to be more accountable for their work following the election of the New Labour to power in 1977. Furlong (2005) notes that New Labour aimed to ensure that decisions taken about education were made at a national level, rather than by teachers themselves, thus reducing teachers’ autonomy. The election of New Labour paved the way for the National Curriculum, which was introduced in 1988. Furlong (2005) argues that such reforms “from above” have contributed to the deskilling or de-professionalization of teachers. Whilst the National Curriculum serves to equalize opportunities across schools, it drastically eroded the self-sufficiency and autonomy that teachers used to have. (Whitty, 2008) This leads to teachers focusing more on implementing the curriculum, rather than formulating new policies of creating a culture of standardization in schools.

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Democratic professionalism can be thought of as a bottom-up response to managerial professionalism. The former is premised on teachers forming strategic networks and alliances with stakeholders in the education community. Whitty and Wisby (2006) stress that teachers should not view democratic professionalism as ‘de-professionalization’ but as an opportunity for stakeholders to liaise with the government to improve education standards. A critique of McClelland’s professionalism “from above” and “from within” reveals that it is difficult to treat both concepts as mutually dichotomous when considering the notion of democratic professionalism. I argue that there is an intersection of both discourses as teachers can collectively assert their power but are constrained by external conditions mandated by the government. Sachs (2003) contributed to the development of the “activist identity” which portrays the teacher as an agent of social change, working to reduce social inequality and re-assert moral leadership. This notion is developed further by Menter et al. (2010) in the ‘transformative’ teacher model, which similar to the “activist identity”, involves teachers engaging with the wider social, moral, and ethical discourse in education. Teachers work beyond the classroom and immediate school community to ensure pupils’ are geared to make a positive impact in society. The idea of activist teaching aligns with my personal philosophy that professional teachers have a responsibility to mirror the values of a robust civil society and contribute to the larger public, underpinned by values of social justice and mutual respect. Further, I view democratic professionalism as progressive and central to my professional identity, echoing the view of Whitty and Wisby. I believe that engaging stakeholders, such as parents carers, and teachers in policy development is fundamental as teachers, along with the rest of society have a collective responsibility to educate the next generation. Thus, my professional identity is greatly shaped by collaboration with stakeholders to serve society and deliver high standards in education.

Hoyle (1974) presents the restricted-extended continuum to depict two modes of teacher professionalism. Teachers positioned at the ‘restricted’ end of the continuum often place considerable emphasis on classroom autonomy and experience-centric learning. ‘Restricted’ individuals are implied to display a one-dimensional outlook of the classroom, with a reluctance to explore alternative classroom and school settings, beyond their own. On the other hand, ‘extended’ professionals demonstrate an unwavering commitment to personal development and a curiosity to examine the broader educational context, mediating theory, and practice. When this model was originally devised by Hoyle (1974), it was unclear as to whether the two concepts were to be treated as mutually exclusive ends of the continuum. Evans (2008), however, develops the concept by suggesting that a teacher’s orientation may involve factors from both ends of the continuum and that professional development facilitates the movement along the continuum from ‘restricted’ to ‘extended’ professionalism. I view the continuum as more of a fluid concept that should reflect the learning environments that teachers are situated in, as a teacher’s professional identity is subject to change “across time and place” (Whitty and Wisby, 2006:26). This echoes the thinking of Fuller and Unwin (2003) who coined the expansive-restricted continuum, which considers the possible learning barriers teachers’ experience on their roadmap to enhancing their professional status. Their study argued that the restrictive and expansive learning environments may occupy a range of points on the continuum, depending on the school that teachers work in. Thus, it is important to note that some school environments may pose barriers to teachers’ professional development through hierarchical structures and cultural practices which may limit a teacher’s professional development due to barriers “from above”.

The challenge of teacher conformity

My own experience as a trainee teacher, working in a school that teaches a Mastery approach to mathematics, has allowed me to synthesize an understanding of how conforming to a prescribed, commercialized curriculum can encroach on teacher professionalism. In the context of my school, the implementation of a commodified curriculum, using pre-packaged teaching and assessment materials arguably limits the scope for initiative and innovation. This may undermine the opportunity for teachers to apply their own creative stance on lesson planning. Further, this may contribute to the diminishing autonomy of teachers. This view is supported by Apple (1983) who argues that whilst subscribing to a pre-packaged curriculum can reduce planning time for teachers, it often leads to the teacher being subservient to the demands of the externally imposed curriculum. A parallel can be drawn to the notion of a teacher being a technician (Winch et al, 2015), which promotes an instrumentalist view of the teacher, as merely a knowledge transmitter. I subscribe to the view that the term ‘technician’ portrays a reductionist sense of the teacher (Locke et al., 2005) that can be likened to operating in a vacuum, with limited scope for critical thinking and pedagogical conduct. Drawing upon my school experience, meetings were held to ensure a shared understanding of the resources and the curriculum guidelines. However, I observed a recurring reluctance for teachers to deviate from the recommended guidelines or apply their own personalized stance. This resonates with Apple’s (1995) observation that some teachers direct more of their energies on adhering to the guidelines of a manual rather than using their own decision-making or craft, hence channeling a technicist approach to teaching. As each school community stipulates its own expectations of what ought to be taught, I am obliged to conform to these standards. This reiterates my view that teacher conformity is central to my definition of teacher professionalism.

Furthermore, my school experience has highlighted the professional challenges associated with teacher conformity, as a direct result of managerial professionalism. As teachers, we must conform to the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) set by the government to be awarded QTS, which inevitably shapes my philosophy as a teacher. I believe that the Teachers’ Standards serves as a technicist framework that moves a teacher towards ‘restricted’, rather than ‘extended’ professionalism (Hoyle, 1974). This is because as teachers, our professional competence is assessed by our ability to conform to a prescribed set of standards, creating a culture of performativity in schools (Jeffrey, 2002). The National Curriculum for Mathematics states that “the majority of pupils will progress through the programs of study at broadly the same pace”. (DfE, 2013: 3) The rationale behind this is to ensure students develop mathematical fluency in one topic before accelerating onto another. This is important as in mathematics, pupils are required to make links between multiple representations of mathematical ideas. However, the issue of expecting all students to work at the same pace and achieve the same key stage expectations in depth is unproductive as it undermines the notion of Teacher Standard 5 related to adaptive practice (DfE, 2011). In my placement school, teachers are increasingly challenged with the growing intake of EAL students. For example, I observed students taking dictionaries into maths classes to translate word problems, which delayed their ability to work at the pace of fluent English speakers. Whilst the DfE recommends differentiation, there is no explicit guidance on how to execute differentiation strategies suitably, which leaves teachers with some autonomy over the strategies they implement. Considering the challenges above, I regard peer collaboration as a key aspect of my professional identity that allows me to overcome any barriers associated with teaching. In light of the literature presented earlier on peer collaboration, discussing my intended teaching approaches with experienced teachers may serve to be a useful tool in shaping my practice. As an aspiring ‘extended’ professional, I value the importance of looking beyond my placement school and engaging in theoretical and practical learning to guide my practice, which is central to my core professional ethos.


This paper reveals that professionalism in teaching is a conceptually complex idea with several normative interpretations of its meaning. Whilst there is some common agreement over its key dimensions; namely, knowledge, autonomy, responsibility, and peer networks, the contestation surrounding professionalism is largely influenced by political forces. I conclude that managerial professionalism is a top-down concept that limits teacher autonomy, whereas democratic professionalism serves as an antidote that is closely aligned with my values centered around collaborative and activist professionalism. I conclude that the restricted-extended continuum (Hoyle, 1974) is best viewed as a fluid concept that is context-dependent. I shape a personal philosophy of professionalism premised on teacher conformity. Reflecting on my observations of managerial professionalism being enacted in schools, I recognize adhering to prescribed standards can encroach on my professional identity. Further, I address that adopting a collaborative and ‘extended’ professional mindset can alleviate some of the challenges I associate with managerial professionalism. I conclude that teacher conformity to standards is central to teacher professionalism.

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Essay on Professionalism in Teaching. (2023, July 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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