When I was in Grade 8, I watched how my Phys Ed teacher and coach Mr. Kay interacted with my teammates and classmates. To this day, I still remember him as a caring, understanding and empathetic man with an infectious smile. And I remember my 13-year-old self thinking, “I want to be like him when I grow up!” I knew I wanted to teach.
Upon completing a Bachelor of Education in 1986, I began a lifelong career in a proud profession.
But what is the teaching profession? I am often asked this question, and I remember the story of why I became a teacher. We all have a story that outlines why we are teachers; what brought us to the profession, and what motivates us to work in public education. Each story is unique, personal and binding — binding because it is the collective of all our journeys and experiences that make up “The Profession.” We are the profession.
The core work of teachers is performed in the classroom — it involves building meaningful relationships with our students, planning and executing strategies to meet individual learning needs. This work does not end with the ringing of a bell. What identifies us as professionals is what we do with the results of our efforts, not simply recording a grade but also engaging in a personal reflection on the experience.
Reflective practice and self-reflection are two key characteristics of professionals. Because of the autonomy teachers have in practice, it is important that we self-monitor our performance and our needs. Did my lessons hit their target? Can I more fully engage my students? Did my differentiation make an individual difference? Do I have the deeper understanding of the topics ahead so I am able to effectively deliver the curriculum? This is but a small sampling of questions a professional might ask when self-reflecting.
In my mind, a professional continually self-reflects and looks for ways to improve. Knowing that we are not simply teaching the same lesson the same way every year instills confidence in students and parents. It’s important that parents know their child has a teacher who is concerned with self-improvement. Not all children come to us with the same readiness to learn and therefore, our approach must be flexible, dynamic and up-to-date. Self-reflection also helps with our own mental well-being as it enables us to celebrate our strengths and identify our students’ victories when we have helped them overcome adversity and grow as individuals.
Another pursuit of a professional teacher is regular reading. “You are what you read!” is what a Grade 9 language arts teacher once told me and I believe it’s very applicable to teachers. Reading works by Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, Dr. Dennis Shirley and Dr. Andy Hargreaves, for example, helped me in my advocacy work to enhance and fight for public education. Works by Dr. Yong Zhao and Dr. Jean Twenge have influenced my leadership practice. But not all reading must be directed at self-improvement. Read for pleasure, for escape, for whatever the reason. What is the last book you read, not one you were told to read, but one you chose on your own because you wanted to?
For teachers, being a professional isn’t confined to the classroom or the school. Teachers lead professional lives that extend into the public sphere. Because we work with children, the most precious gifts that each parent has, we must not only teach with high levels of competence, but we must also embody high standards of ethical conduct at all times.
Parents need to feel comfortable with the individuals who are charged with the well-being of their children. During the orientation sessions I’ve delivered to pre-service teachers, I’ve often referred to this concept as “living the professional life,” reminding young colleagues that we are teachers 24/7. We represent the profession, and our public appearance and actions must reflect respect for our profession. Have you considered your public appearance, your language and your personal demeanour? How do you portray yourself on social media and in public? In this regard, there is greater pressure on teachers in small communities and remote areas where they routinely interact with parents outside of school.
Within the big picture of public education, the road ahead promises to remain rocky for the teaching profession. We continue to witness the actions of governments with neo-liberal ideals that are bringing forward recommendations from so-called “task forces” that question the roots of our education systems. We are seeing recommendations that set out to dismantle teachers’ organizations by removing our principal colleagues, that seek to enhance high-stakes testing programs and that deprofessionalize us by removing teacher autonomy. There are so many recommendations, and yet no consultation with the profession. Alberta, Newfoundland, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have either had this experience or are currently facing it. Teachers’ professional voice must be heard at the forefront in the decision-making process when the decisions impact education and the classroom.
Teacher professional learning is another area that’s under pressure from outside forces. Teacher colleges and employers often profess to know what, where and when is best with regard to professional learning for the classroom teacher — the most devastating is the notion of how to apply this learning. But who can be better positioned than classroom teachers to identify teachers’ needs? Through self-reflection and professional growth planning, I believe, teachers are in the best position to identify areas for growth, and to identify how their learning should take place. They just need the support to do so.
As President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, I am an advocate for fully funded quality public education, for all teachers across Canada and for the rights of all Canadian children to access high calibre integrated classrooms. As teachers, we are tasked with building the future through the successes of the students in our charge. After all, the well-being of Canadian children is what our profession is all about.