Monday, June 16, 2014

Is Professionalism Becoming a Thing of the Past?

I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to connect with other educators from around the world. These connections are what have shaped me as an educator. I love professional events where I get to have a face-to-face reunion with those who have become friends and meet new individuals to begin new learning ventures. It's inspiring and energizing to be able to turn a digital connection into a deeper one that has a long-lasting impact on us as professionals and colleagues in education.

However, I have been alarmed over what seems to be a rising trend. I have spent weeks, months even, contemplating what I have observed and experienced. What I am about to share is not hearsay, but first hand experience. My point in sharing these scenarios and reflections is to cause all of us (myself included) to think. Isn't that what we want for our students? To become reflective thinkers? To weigh our choices against the impending consequences? Shouldn't we do the same for ourselves? 

As David H. Maister said in his book True Professionalism,
Professional is not a label you give yourself – it’s a description you hope others will apply to you. 

Where are you?  

For most educators today, attending professional development events is a luxury. Professional development funds are being cut...or in many cases are nonexistent. Yet, many of those who do attend are simply not in attendance. They are out sightseeing or sleeping off last night's adventure. When you are at a conference and the second day's general session has a fourth of the number of participants in attendance, there is a problem...especially when the social media feed for the conference is packed with their late night exploits. I  know of two school systems who no longer permit their teachers to attend conferences held near the beach or in Las Vegas. To me this speaks to the fact that this is becoming a real problem: using educational funds for a personal vacation. It's irresponsible. That's just took away the keys from their wayward child. Would that have had to transpire if the individuals were conducting themselves professionally? Absolutely not.

Because of the actions of a few, many more are losing out on the potential to grow professionally. I've often heard teachers returning to schools extolling how wonderful the conference was while being totally unable to share anything that they have learned with anyone else. That cheats all of us of potential learning. I realize that all learning is not done formally. There needs to be time to separate from a learning event and reflect. There need to be times where we re-connect or build new collaborations, for ourselves and for our students. But the focus is always on the learning, growing, and connecting that we can do to sharpen our teaching practice. We need to be present to make that happen. Show up. Be there. Participate. Learn. Be present every day. That's why you're there. 

Who's listening?

I was recently at a major national conference and sitting on the fourth row (Sweet seat, huh?). On the row behind me were four individuals who worked for the professional organization whose event this was. As some prestigious awards were being announced, the individuals behind me were giving an extremely unkind commentary on the attire that each of the recipients were wearing (the recipients were all dressed professionally, by the way). At an organization where we are there to grow as professionals, these individuals were completely negating all the hard work and dedication that the recipients put forth every day with their learners.  [This was not an isolated incident].
Is this what we've come down to? We teach our students to look for the inward qualities of others. Honor their thoughts, ideas, hard work, differences, and struggles. Shouldn't we do the same? Being a middle school teacher, we work on this all year long. My eleven and twelve year old students would never behave this way in a classroom...hopefully nowhere else either. So why are so many negative, insulting, and unkind to one another? We are professionals. We will not all agree on a specific strategy, method, or tool. That is absolutely okay. Our words shape other people's perception of us as individuals and educators. Aren't we already fighting against enough as educators without adding the stigma that we're petty, backbiting, gossips? As my mother always said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

What's being watched?

In addition to having people, educators and non-educators, listening to us, they are also watching our actions. At a recent conference, during the four days that I was there, I took two cab rides. In both of those short rides, cab drivers shared their experiences with educators who were also attending the same conference. One's tale was of two teachers who identified themselves as conference participants in the midst of a barrage of foul language and over intoxication. The other's tale was of a group of educators who got in an argument with the driver over what amounted to a dollar difference in their fare. The police were called. 

Yes, I know that we are adults. But, all of the people in that area knew there was a large teacher conference in town. They immediately drew conclusions about all of us based on their little interaction with other educators. I know this may seem cliche', but we are representing ourselves, our schools, our districts, and our profession. When we take our students out on field trips, we expect them to be positive ambassadors for our schools. We want them to understand this so much that we have a glorious speech prepared and many times the principal repeats this as well before departure. It's important to communicate expectations. Shouldn't we expect the same of ourselves? You never know who will be at the next table or in the seat across from you on a plane. You may be the one who changes their opinion of educators based on the integrity with which you conduct yourself in informal settings. 

Who's looking?

I'll admit that this one is a pet peeve of mine. I've mentioned it in two other posts, but I think it bears repeating. Although we should never judge a book by its cover, as humans that happens. I'm also learning that a first impression matters. This first time I thought about the message that I was sending by what I chose to wear was the first time I read The First Days of School by Harry Wong. Let's face it, we are in a (very important) service industry. To be successful educator, we need to have credibility with our students. We need to sell them on learning. They need to know that what we are doing (educating and inspiring them) is valuable and serious business. I am not proposing that we need to wear a suit every day, but our students need to know that we are educated professionals who are there to guide them in their learning journey. They need to trust that. Appearance conveys that to them...and their parents, board members, and community leaders. Trust me, you never know when a camera crew/reporter is going to drop by the school unannounced to do a few shots for a story.

Likewise, your appearance at professional events does the same. Before we open our mouths to meet someone new or share an idea, others will make an assumption on the quality of what we have to offer based on the choices that we make in our appearance. Remember this is a professional conference. You are there to learn and connect. Your appearance should not get in the way of that goal. Your students and colleagues are counting on you to get the most out of these opportunities. Yes, you need comfortable walking shoes and attire that fits the climate. However, who is going to take you seriously when you are dressed like you are working in your yard, heading to a backyard barbecue,  or making a late night run to the grocery store? This goes back to the idea of taking pride in yourself and our profession. We have the most important career of from which all other careers are possible. We need to dress in a way that reflects that.

Will professionalism become a thing of the past? We have the most honorable profession. It is one that has the potential to greatly change the world in which we live. It needs to be led by confident, bold, well-educated professionals who will clear a path for the best learning opportunities for our students. Their future depends upon the choices we make make today. Let's make them count.

photo credit: A Guy Taking Pictures via photopin cc


  1. Julie:
    I could't agree with your post more. I have been holding my tongue (although I want to scream) on just the same topic concerning a conference the day before the conference to which you referred in this post.

    During the conference I am incensed about a very prominent speaker told the audience that nothing could be done to save their jobs or funding unless they were willing to step forward and let their voices be heard. We then immediately transitioned into a SmackDown (one of my favorite things at conferences) and NO ONE participated. Even after reminding attendees of what the speaker had said and say, "Certainly everyone has at least ONE thing to share about what they did or learned this year".... still NO ONE participated! I'm still not ready to write a blog post about it because I am still so angry I think the keyboard would catch on fire.

    BTW: I was not at the 2nd Keynote because I was moving to Huntsville. I did take the opportunity, however, to enjoy Kevin Honeycutt's fun musical session the night before even though I still had lots of packing to do and knew I would be exhausted for the move. It was well worth it!

    Much love, Julie! Thanks for saying what needed to be said.

  2. Julie,
    I'm one of those strange people who can't get enough self-selected PD. Like you, I give my full attention to the speaker while in their session. If a colleague wants to chat throughout the session, I will either not sit next to them next time and/or I might whisper, "let's talk later." If called on by the presenter to participate in some way, then I will do so because I’m there to get the most out of the session.

    Now to play devil's advocate, too often our schools and the public don't treat us as professionals. Most of the cost of an out of town trip is paid for by the teacher or through grants she has applied for. We are expected to share a room with 1-3 other teachers and should drive in one car if the trip will take less than 10 hours. The food budget, if there's one, rarely covers a day's worth of meals at fast food restaurants. Other professional fields pay for the cost of the entire trip. Employees are expected to stay in their own room. Time is money so travel is based on time and cost not just cost (plane tickets are not considered a luxury). If an employee does not behave appropriately or in the best interest of the company, then they are dealt with individually . . . the rest of the company does not get prohibited from attending conferences because of the poor behavior of one.

    With that said, teachers who want to be considered professional must act accordingly. Conferences are not vacations. We are there to learn from our colleagues around the country. Like those in the business world, we can pay for an extra night at the hotel and be tourist before or after the conference. We must show up for the majority of the sessions. Sometimes, we need to sit out a session to process information or to connect with a small group.

    I worry that too many schools treat out of town PD as a reward to teachers rather than as an opportunity to have their schools represented and for teacher growth in the field. I feel lucky to be at a school where PD is valued for its intended purpose. Thank you for bringing up this delicate topic. We need to reflect. It’s the only way to improve.