Twenty-five years ago, on June 11, 1997, Michael Jordan scored 38 points in a crucial Game 5 playoff final over the Utah Jazz. In and of itself, this performance was not headline news: Michael often upped his performance in the playoffs. (He still holds the record for the most playoff games scoring 40+ points: 38 games!) However, this game became known as the “Flu Game” in which the superstar played even after battling flu-like symptoms all day and reportedly having taken fluids and painkillers during halftime.
Michael willed himself to score 38 points, including a three-pointer with 25 seconds remaining that sealed the win for the Bulls. Teammate Scottie Pippen, said, “He showed just how big a professional he is by gutting this game out.”
Scottie’s quote begs the question, what does it mean to be a professional? You might think this post will be about coming to work even when you are sick—willing yourself to get out of bed and power through the school day. Wrong: if you are sick, please stay home, despite the shortage of substitute teachers! But I would like to explore the word “professional” within the context of our vocation, teaching.
A word study
Let’s do a word study on the word professionalism. To profess is to make a public announcement or to declare. The New Testament use of the verb profess comes from the Greek homologeo—“to speak or say together in common,” a definition that requires some degree of a unified voice. The word profession can be understood as a paid occupation that often involves training and a formal qualification. A profession can also be considered a group of people who make a common declaration, adhere to ethical standards, and possess a special set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions in which the public can have confidence. Therefore, a professional is one who lives up to the declared standards of the profession.
Within the teaching profession, educators have certainly gotten some things wrong over time, such as teaching inaccurate accounts about a president chopping down a cherry tree or Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. We have made pedagogical blunders like minimizing a student’s learning to a number or percentage or taking a one-size-fits-all approach in a classroom of 24 unique image-bearers.
The potential for error is why being a professional, and having professional standards, in our vocation is so important. We are to hold one another accountable through our research and development of “next” practices. Collectively, we work to uphold our profession. When we do get it wrong, we own it and change course to protect and defend what we understand to be right and true.
“The enforcement of common views on a group of people can enforce an unhealthy conformity, but clear guidelines can also sustain a profession.”
Profess, profession, professional . . . we have arrived at the word professionalism, which refers to the conduct, behavior, and attitude of those who serve within the profession. Like many -isms, this word gives us pause as we know this suffix can find itself in a distinct doctrine, theory, or practice (e.g. Kuyperianism, capitalism, baptism). An -ism can also refer to a discriminatory attitude or belief (e.g. racism). The enforcement of common views on a group of people can enforce an unhealthy conformity, but clear guidelines can also sustain a profession. We obviously prefer the latter effect, but the “pause” should encourage us to always exercise caution to avoid an unintended result.
Professionalism and school culture
Professionalism is something that is “caught as well as taught,” in my opinion. Your school’s professional identity formation process, whether stated or hidden (sounds like curriculum, eh?), is activated this time of year. Your school has a set of shared values that are communicated through practices that shape your school’s culture from the first day teachers arrive in the building. Mentor programs to relieve the stress on those new to your school, in-service activities that engage and inspire next practices and an innovator’s mindset, team-building events that develop trust and a sense of “I’m not alone”—these intentional practices communicate the conduct, behavior, and attitude we strive for as professional educators.
And here is the best news about our profession. In Ephesians 4 Paul tells us that Christ has gifted you to do this work: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers . . .” (vs.11). Christ himself orchestrated the people called to collectively develop the professional identity of teaching at your school. Why did He bother with such work? Verses 12 and 13 have the answer: “to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” What a privilege to be invited in, as God’s human partners, to this good work!
Welcome (back) to the profession of teaching!