P is for Profession

30 01 2011

Hard times?

In a leading Spanish daily a couple of weeks ago, there was a feature on an up-and-coming actress, in which she recounted her years of ‘penury’ before achieving stardom. This is how it was reported (loosely translated): “Her career has suffered fits and starts. [She recalls,] ‘I worked as an ice-cream seller, a mime at Ikea, a teacher of English, and a teacher of drawing…'” The newspaper comments: “These are the privations that many of her actor friends have had to put up with, grabbing whatever they can …”

And in the 1995 edition of The Cambridge International Dictionary of English the following citation appeared under the entry for end up: “After working her way around the world, she ended up teaching English as a foreign language”.

This perception of English language teaching as being a slightly disreputable last resort, or, at best, a gap-year option, is one that is endlessly perpetuated, and is a source of both embarrassment and indignation on the part of many dedicated English teachers.

One way of redressing this negative stereotype has been to claim professional status, arguing that language teaching, being highly skilled, requires (or should require) extensive training and rigorous gate-keeping. In this spirit, organisations such as IATEFL and TESOL make it their mission “to develop and maintain professional expertise in English language teaching” (as the TESOL website puts it).

But is TEFL really a profession? Is teaching even a profession? In his seminal book, School teacher: A sociological study, Lortie (1975) suggested that — compared to the prototypical professions like law, medicine or engineering — maybe it is not. Why? Because, unlike doctors, lawyers, architects, etc:

  • teachers continue to be employed subordinates who are employed in organizations where those that govern do not belong to the occupation;
  • there is no consensual base of professional knowledge;
  • membership is not carefully screened by the occupational group itself;
  • entry to teaching is eased by society, as compared to other professions: entry requirements are relatively lacking in rigour and length and the decision to enter can be made at almost any age.

Whether or not this is true for mainstream teaching, it certainly does seem to reflect the reality on the ground for much of TEFL, and accounts for the relatively low levels of professional self-esteem, often exacerbated by poor pay and long hours.

"The technology model"

What is to be done? As I wrote a few years back (Thornbury 2001), “those working in EFL who are concerned by this implied lack of status have responded by attempting to construe EFL in terms of one of two distinct models” (p. 392). These I labelled the academic model (aimed at establishing ‘a consensual base of professional knowledge’, through, for example, research and publication), and the therapeutic model, where, by enlisting certain new-age discursive practices, the somewhat mundane activity of teaching is re-invented  as a form of healing. (I am less convinced, now, that the therapeutic model has as extensive a following as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything it has been eclipsed by the technology model, whereby respect is conferred by donning a lab-coat and swearing allegiance to the doctrine of Vorsprung durch Technik. Meanwhile, the academic model is stronger than ever, judging by the number of MA TESOL programs on offer – on one of which – declaring an interest – I teach).

As an alternative (to the academic and therapeutic models), I argued that teachers might achieve a measure, not just of self-respect, but of personal and professional excitement, by acknowledging the fact “that they occupy a privileged space on the frontier between languages and hence on the frontier between cultures, and that they are uniquely situated to mediate contact through dialogue” (p. 394).

A dialogic model of pedagogy, grounded firmly in an educational tradition, as opposed to an academic or a therapeutic or a technocratic one, still seems to me to offer the best way forward. As Claire Kramsch puts it: “A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… it sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher” (Kramsch 1993, p. 31).

I concluded my article by suggesting that:

as a profession we should worry less about what other people think of us and concern ourselves more with what we are good at: being out there, at the front, in the firing line, on the edge. Few jobs can offer as much. The lightness of EFL is dizzying. But we need to guard against respectability. As Auden wrote: “The sense of danger must not disappear” (p.396).

Ten years on: is the craving for respectability still as strong as ever?


Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lortie, D. 1975. School teacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chcago Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001.The unbearable lightness of EFL. English Language Teaching Journal, 55/4, 391-6.