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Do professions go on strike?

When I go around the country talking to teacher trainees we get talking about the definition of a profession and the characteristics of professionalism. I love it.

I always get a wide ranging discussion going into which people brainstorm things like education, training, qualifications, cpd, specialist skills and knowledge and then develop thinking around dedication, being a role model, responsibility, trust, probity, accountability.

I am always interested in their understanding of the concept of accountability. To whom do they feel they ‘owe’ it? Willingly, the trainees will recognise that they are accountable to a wide range of ‘stakeholders’ (horrible phrase I know) such as:

  • their employers (like the local authority or school governors who appoint them to their job);

  • their line-managers (like head of department or headteacher, who will ask them what they are planning to teach every day);

  • the wider public and government (through things like Ofsted, who come round and inspect the quality of our teaching);

  • the parents (who turn up at parents evenings or accost you first thing in the morning to ask how ‘Little Johnny’ is getting on with his reading);

  • and even ‘Little Johnny’ himself (who will walk through the classroom door and ask “What are we going to do today Sir?” or complain: “Miss, you haven’t marked my homework!”)

I have rarely met a single student or trainee who doesn’t accept that wide ranging accountability comes with accepting the complex and weighty responsibilities we take on from the first day we enter a classroom as a qualified teacher.

Then I usually tell them this story:

Some years ago I was at a party in the area where I live in north London. I was standing around drinking wine, being introduced to neighbours I hardly knew (that’s what it’s like living in London…) and the guy standing next to me said: “What do you do for a living Alan?”

I said pleasantly: “By profession, I’m a teacher.”

“Well, teaching’s not a profession,” he said rather bluntly (that’s what they’re like in Muswell Hill…!)

“Isn’t it?” I said. “Why do you say that?”

“Teachers go on strike,” he said. “Professions don’t go on strike. Professions put the interests of their clients first. If you go on strike for better pay or pensions or conditions, you’re not putting the interests of your clients’ first. You’re putting your own interests before theirs.”

I must admit I was rather challenged by that remark. We had a rather animated discussion for the next ten minutes that ended with me throwing my glass of wine over his… no, I’m only joking.

So I turn back to ask trainees the question:

“What do you think? Do professions go on strike?” and what follows is always a fascinating response.

One such response came recently at the King Edward’s Consortium PGCE in Birmingham (an excellent place to train as a teacher by the way) and one of their brilliant trainees said (I’m paraphrasing her but it’s pretty close):

“Yes, I think professions do go on strike and I reserve my right to do so if in my judgment and that of my colleagues we think that, for example, my employers or the government needs to be held accountable for their actions. Because their actions can directly affect me as a teacher and my students. I accept my accountability to a wide range of people including my employers and the government. But accountability cuts both ways. My right to strike is a way I can hold my employers or the government to account as well.”

What do you think? Do professions go on strike? Does accountability cut both ways?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

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