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How professional do you
want to be?


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How professional do you
want to be?

by Lindsay Clandfield & Philip Kerr

• The fuzziness of definitions
• What is a profession?
Is English Language Teaching a profession?
The desirability of professionalism
Further reading

You don't have to look very far in the world of English Language Teaching (ELT) to come across the word professional. IATEFL is an organisation for 'English Language Teaching professionals worldwide'; the English Language Teaching Journal is for 'ELT professionals'; the magazine English Teaching Professional chooses to use the word in its title. Universities offer professional development courses for working professionals and pre-service courses like the CELTA of Cambridge ESOL or the CertTESOL of Trinity College highlight the importance of professionalism and professional awareness. Such is the frequency of the word professional in ELT contexts that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a thoroughly professional world. But we know from the discourse of some politicians (with their talk of 'weapons of mass destruction') or football bosses (with their protestations of 'confidence' in team managers) that repetition of a word does not always reflect reality. Is English Language Teaching really so professional? And is professionalism a desirable objective in any case?

The fuzziness of definitions

The most common meaning of the word professional is described by the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED) as follows:

It is clear from the above that professional is a very positively connoted word. It refers to the world of work (see definition 1), and within this context, professional is roughly synonymous with good. The opposite, unprofessional, makes the correspondence between professional and good clearer still.

However, MED continues with a second meaning of the word.

This meaning is very different and relates specifically to the notion of a profession (which we will look at further below). This usage is free of the positive connotations of the first definition. In the context of ELT, the primary meaning of the word professional would seem to be the second of MED's entries, but the two meanings are also conflated, so that it is possible to read the following message: ELT is a profession being a profession is good. In the rest of this article, we will look at these two propositions a little more closely.


What is a profession?

It is not always easy to say if any given job is a profession or not. Prototypically, some jobs are more professional than others, with doctors and lawyers as probably the most prototypical examples. While footballers and prostitutes may consider themselves to belong to a profession, society at large does not always share this view. We will need a fuller definition of what constitutes a profession before we can consider the extent to which English language teachers are or should be professionals. One useful definition is provided by Roberts:

'A profession is seen to provide a specialized and valued service to the public; in theory, at least, it is accountable to the public interest or the conduct and performance of its members. A profession, therefore, typically has a governing body which establishes standards of entry, certification, conduct and performance, and which imposes sanctions against members who fail to meet the conditions for continued practice.'


Is English Language Teaching a profession?

Just as problems arise because of fuzzy uses of the word professional, so there is a danger in referring to ELT – English Language Teaching.

The philosopher Alain De Botton once said that 'you become a TEFL teacher when your life has gone wrong' and according to a writer in the Daily Telegraph, 'no one with a scrap of ambition' would choose to teach English as a foreign language. These writers were referring to the private sector language school market. In this context, poor pay and conditions, a lack of job security, unqualified or minimally qualified (e.g. a four-week course) staff, the lack of any career structure and cynical employers are perhaps the norm rather than exceptions. Within this context, there is little that is professional (in either of its meanings), but it would be wrong to generalise about ELT from one particular manifestation of it.

The occupation of ELT, as Alan Maley pointed out, is characterised by its enormous diversity: private sector / public sector, native speakers / non-native speakers, primary / secondary / tertiary, employers / individuals, etc. Numerically, the most significant are English language teachers working in state-sponsored institutions around the world. Here, pay and conditions may be far from ideal, but job security is usually guaranteed, career paths are often well defined, and staff are recognised by their governments as being appropriately qualified. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that this is not a profession either. Lortie's classic study of school teachers concludes that teaching is not a profession for the following reasons:

'teachers continue to be employed subordinates' who are 'employed in organizations where those who govern do not belong to the organization'
there was no consensual base of professional knowledge
membership was not carefully screened by the occupational group itself
entry to teaching was eased by society, as compared with the professions: entry requirements were relatively lacking in vigour and length

It is interesting to note that in many countries (in New Zealand, Zambia and Hong Kong to name but three parts of the world), there has been recent debate about the need to raise the standards of teachers' professionalism. Whilst the details of the criticisms vary, they all share a concern with a lack of professionalism. The fuzzy use of the term professional puts teachers in a bind. Of course, teachers want to be professional (i.e. good), but there is little that they can do about the fact that their occupation is less prototypically professional than law or medicine. In this sense, the use of the term professional is unhelpful. Comparisons between teachers and prototypically professional doctors and lawyers have 'little more than curiosity value' (Elliott) and should perhaps be abandoned. There are other occupations (police officers, priests and nurses, for example) which are much closer to English language teachers in terms of remuneration, entry qualifications and working conditions.


The desirability of professionalism

There appears to be, within the literature of ELT, a general agreement that professionalism is a desirable objective. The consensual view is that there is a need for wider professionalism in ELT, and one frequently comes across articles that comment approvingly on the progress that is being made towards professionalism.
Paradoxically, many practitioners of ELT would not describe themselves as working within ELT. In answer to the question 'What do you do?', how many teachers would reply 'I work in ELT'? We suspect that 'I'm a (primary / secondary school) teacher' is a much more likely response. In this context, it is interesting to see that in the literature of (non-ELT) educational research, the desirability of professionalisation is very far from being widely accepted.

When looked at from a socio-historical perspective, professionalism takes on a much less rosy hue. In Britain in the 1980s, teachers came under a sustained attack for a lack of professionalism, but educationalists were equally vigorous in their response. The attacks, they said, were politically motivated and served to justify a greater state control over education. The discourse of professionalism was seen as a way of eliciting the consent of workers for reduced conditions of employment: it was, in short, a type of occupational control. The position was stated forcefully by Johnson:

'A profession, then, is not an occupation, but a means of controlling an occupation. Likewise, professionalisation is an historically specific process which some occupations have undergone at a particular time, rather than a process which certain occupations may always be expected to undergo because of their essential qualities.'

The notion of professionalism is further questioned by writers drawing on Illich's observation that a central agenda for professionals is the defence of their own profession. This implies a certain power relationship between professional and client – a very different kind of relationship from that which a reflective teacher might wish to foster with her students. In this sense, too, the relevance of professionalism to teaching may not be as straightforward as it seems.

It is not our intention to suggest that professionalism is an undesirable objective, but we think that it can only be beneficial to reflect further on what is meant by the term. The teacher, author and activist James Baldwin once said that 'the price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side'. Part of the process of becoming more professional is perhaps the development of a more critical understanding of the nature of professionalism itself.


Further reading

Managing Teachers as Professionals in Schools, H. Busher & R. Saran (eds.) (Kogan Page, London, 1995)
Teaching in post-compulsory education: profession, occupation or reflective practice?, G. Elliott (1996)
Deschooling Society, I. Illich (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973)
Professions and Power, T.J. Johnson (Macmillan, London, 1972)
Teachers: The Culture and Politics of Work, M. Lawn & G. Grace (eds.) (The Falmer Press, Lewes, 1989)
Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study, D. Lortie (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1975)
An open letter to the 'profession', A. Maley (ELT Journal 46/1, 96-99, 1992)
Language Teacher Education, J. Roberts (Arnold, 1998)


Lindsay Clandfield and Philip Kerr are the authors of Straightforward, the new Macmillan course for adults and young adults.