Chapter Nine: Teachers and the Teaching Profession

9.2 What is a Profession? A Traditional Perspective

In everyday life, the terms “profession” and “professional” have a very broad range of meanings; in the academic literature, however, they have traditionally been more narrowly defined. Despite this, there is still some variation in the ways in which these terms are derived and used. Their meanings are most often developed through an examination of the characteristics of so-called “true professions” (especially medicine and law). From this examination emerges an ideal type or model consisting of a series of characteristics that serve to separate professions from other occupations. Four examples of widely accepted definitions of profession are included in Box 9.1.1. It should be noted that the Rich, and Hoy and Miskel definitions relate to the characteristics of a profession in general, the Rodriguez definitions relate specifically to teaching as a profession. While each has its own unique emphasis and language, these definitions share the following broad characteristics:

  1. A profession possesses a unique body of knowledge that is obtained by its members over a long period of formal training. Professionals are continually adding to this knowledge throughout their careers.
  2. A profession is an essential service that is held in high regard by society at large; as such, its members are usually afforded high status in the society.
  3. A profession is afforded a high degree of autonomy and is self-regulating. Professional bodies possess a code of ethics and regulate both entry into the profession and the behaviour of their members – including the ability to decertify them. Individual members exercise independent judgment in carrying out their work within the profession’s rules, and depend on their peers rather than their superiors for advice and direction.

Such lists of characteristics have the conceptual status of an “ideal type”: no occupation fully embodies each of these characteristics, and different occupations vary over time and from place to place in the extent to which they meet each of the defining characteristics. Given this perspective, the ideal type does more than simply enable us to determine whether teaching (or any other occupation) makes it into the elite ranks of the professions; as an analytical tool, it allows us to examine the ways in which teaching approximates each of these attributes so that we can better understand the nature of public schools and the organization of teaching. Accordingly, the next section examines how the above characteristics of professions have been viewed in relation to teaching.