The notion of professionalism comes up time and time again in the world of early childhood education. Teachers struggled for years to gain this status, even to the extent of rejecting elements of their work that were frowned upon – such as 'caring' that harps back to 'mothers work' which we all know is the polar opposite to being a 'professional'. Anyway, a recent visit by some teachers from a corporate chain (which I won't name) sparked some reflection and inquiry...
Being able to define and create ones own place in a community, to exercise agency concerning practice, pedagogy and curriculum I would consider to be a hallmark of professionalism. At the centre I work we are carving out a pedagogical niche and the process of 'becoming' is well embraced (This concept of 'becoming' is attributed to Vossler et al, 2005 which I recommend you read). Through observation, reflection, dialogue with colleagues and community, research and professional development, the teaching team here are wholeheartedly engaged in an ongoing process of learning that befits their professional status.
In contrast to this ideal, we were visited by a group of teachers from a corporate chain. Throughout the morning their enthusiasm for the curriculum is evident, but their conversation is peppered with comments about how they would never be allowed to incorporate ideas like this, and how proposals for 'change' are reframed by their mangers in economic terms and that arguments on a pedagogical basis have little impact.
Professional autonomy is widely considered as a key hallmark of professionalism. The ongoing need for professional knowledge, for critical dialogue with colleagues and the learning community, to critically critique the contexts, paradigms, discourses, values etc, that exert influence on the teaching and learning process, all require professional autonomy (Duhn, 2010; Moss, 2010 etc – actually there's a whole swag of really interesting reading just out on professionalism).
Duhn (2010) paints a lovely picture of independent owner-operator centres created through partnerships with community and able to rapidly transform to meet community needs. Of being able to critically engage with pedagogy and curriculum, to practice teaching as 'being', a process of learning where uncertainty and risk-taking is embraced with no pressure to met pre-determined external outcomes. It was in such centres that this 'critical ecology of the profession' (Dalli, 2010) helped create Te Whāriki, our early childhood curriculum.
Neoliberal reforms experienced by New Zealand in the 1980's saw changes to both the governance and mandate of education. International discourses on education saw traditional national goals of 'public good' replaced with rigid predetermined transnational targets that primarily focus on economics and the maintenance of neoliberalism (Duhn, 2010; Codd, 2008). Codd discusses how this radical shift in the purpose and intent of education has been heralded by a managerial culture preoccupied with performativity – what is produced, observed and measured, with educators now relegated to technocrats implementing the directives of political ideology. Codd further argues that this loss of autonomy is precipitating a decline in teacher commitment to the values and principles of education.
Urban (2010) positions education historically as a political practice, a “meaningful and equal interaction (that is) deeply embedded in the sociocultural, economic and historical context of human society,” and argues that such a view is opposed to the neoliberal concept of education as a “de-contextualised technocratic practices imposed on children and educators (…) as highly effective means of control, normalisation and confinement." In the face of such fundamental change to the profession of teaching, Farquhar (2008) asks if the early childhood sector is shifting from a position of professional advocacy to being an institution “subsumed within a culture of regulatory requirements” (Dalli, 2010).
According to Moss (2010) neo-liberalism has seen the nature of relationships transform from a social and political paradigm to economic and managerial constructs where early childhood education exists in a “strange balance of free-markets and central control” (p.12). Neoliberalism positions teaching as a skill that can be separated from other aspects of centre life. Teachers set and maintain bench marks for standards; quality and professionalism become terms that lead to tangible outcomes like salary rises and promotions (Duhn, 2010).
In discussing the isolation of teachers from professional decision making Woodrow (2008 ) examines the impact of corporate dominance in the ECEC sector with “many aspects of the daily curriculum that children experience and ECEC professionals implement, 'authorised' and mediated through corporate relationships designed to maximise shareholder returns”. In-house training see professional knowledge tightly controlled and ensures loyalty to the company over the profession. Centres that are absorbed into this model lose the ability to authentically reflect and respond to their immediate community. Iris Duhn (whose rather scary investigation of corporate baby-farmers ABC is worth finding) argues that teachers in corporate centres are often isolated from decision making roles and lose control over curriculum and professional development
'Professionalism' is a key neoliberal discourse as it relates to accountability, control and the notion of quality: a measurable, manageable, standardised outcome. This economic interpretation of professionalism is mirrored in recent government policy moves that include lowering the percentage of qualified teachers in a centre, cuts to professional development, and the closing of Centres of Innovation research programme, and is further entrenched in the recent ECE Taskforce review and recommendations.
Countering this corporate definition of professionalism are calls for a ground-up interpretation of professionalism that envisions the re-establishing of democratic and participatory structures and relationships, to reclaim space and ask critical questions that once again build on the radical roots of the early childhood profession. Dalli's (2008) research into teacher perceptions of professionalism is rather dry to read, but it showed that pedagogical strategies and collaborative relationships ranked at the top of desirable attributes with the notion of best practice and managerialism, ranking the least important. Faith is restored! Dalli's call for a re-conceptualisation of what it means to be a professional that reflects the reality of teaching is echoed by others (Urban, 2010; Moss, 2010) concerned that as a result of corporate dominance, the loss of professional autonomy is rendering teachers powerless.
I consider autonomy to be a critical tenet of professionalism and its loss calls into question the status of teaching – we are not technocrats at the mercy of our masters. Dalli (2010) calls for a re-emergence of the critical ecologies that once drove the transition of the early childhood workforce into a profession. Here, as a result of collaboration, critical thinking, research and advocacy, professionalism grew out of the profession rather than it being imposed from above.