Chapter three in Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms by Richards and Lockhart discusses professionalism in English teaching and asks us to reflect on what that means to us and whether we believe teaching English is a profession. AS with most books that I've seen that bring the topic of professionalism up, the book does not define the term. This is a problem because just like "business casual", the term means different things to different people. The book even goes on to mention that some people perceive it as a skilled trade instead of a profession. My first thought was, "What's the difference?" Unfortunately, the authors did not inform me.
Looking on Wikipedia briefly just to get a feel for the term and an idea, I found the following:
A professional is a person who is paid to undertake a specialized set of tasks and to complete them for a fee. The traditional professions were doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects and commissioned military officers. Today, the term is applied to nurses, accountants, educators, scientists, technology experts, social workers, artists, librarians (information professionals) and many more.
I think the most important aspects of professionalism, after looking at this excerpt and reflecting on what else I know about the idea, are the high degree of specialization, work autonomy that is creative and intellectually challenging, regulation by peers and strong ethical obligation. So in many ways, I definitely see teaching English as a professionalism, but think there are many ways it could improve.
I think the high degree of specialization is not quite there yet in the field. Some treat the job as a random selection of English materials without much thought. I think in a true profession, specialization entails knowing what to do and when. This means everything should have a clear purpose and that this should be known before class, not during class. It also makes sense to base any of this on a proper assessment, which seems to be a huge gap in English teaching. Properly assessing English knowledge in learners is in no way uniform or consistent and is closely linked to point three about regulation.
I do think that we clearly fit into the high work autonomy and engagement in creative and intellectual challenge category. There are few positions that require as much creativity on a moment to moment basis and fewer with a higher degree of worker autonomy. Of course, some positions or jobs will be very controlled and force to follow an exact curriculum, but especially outside of the United States, from what I've seen, the autonomy is there.
Regulation by peers is something that is not firmly in place and could be improved. There is little in terms of agreement on education, certification, licensing or any other form of regulation in terms of who can and cannot teach ESOL. Until that happens, many learners will receive drastically different education from place to place. Even observations and feedback from peers is not common.
Finally, the idea of an ethical obligation is quite obvious in most professions. Medicine as the Hippocratic oath and financial advisers have fiduciary duty. There are no real legal oaths or duties that teachers have that I am aware of, for English or in general. I just do not think teachers look at the act of teaching with the idea of, "First, do no harm," as many other professions are obligated to do. Teachers need a greater awareness of the fact that although they may not always inspire and educate a student to their fullest potential, they should at the very least do no harm to them and their future. There are too many anecdotal stories of people that believe they aren't intelligent or capable due to a past teacher. This is unacceptable. Perhaps education would benefit greatly from taking a "Socratic oath" which could imitate the Hippocratic oath in form and function, but have a decidedly educational bent to it. Taking the Hippocratic oath from Wikipedia and rearranging the appropriate parts for education would look something like this:
"I swear by Hermes, the educator, Apollo, Athena, and Mnemosyne, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:
This was copied and pasted from Wikipedia and then changed all in good fun, but something similar should indeed be created for educators. Hope you found it interesting.