National Writing Project

What Real Professionalism Requires

By: Pam Cheng
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: A beginning second grade teacher describes how she measured her professionalism by rigorous yardsticks: standards, accountability, high expectations. Encountering blank stares, resistance, and paper balls thrown at her, she had to change her approach.


In a recent letter to the editor, a reader of our local paper reminded us that even with all the recent educational budget cuts and hardships for public schools and teachers, there were some compelling reasons why people might choose to teach. "They work only nine and a half months out of a year with more than an additional month off for holidays and breaks," she wrote. "They work only days, no nights, weekends, or holidays and . . . if you minus lunch and recess, it only adds up to about five hours a day in the classroom." She ends her message of "stop complaining; teachers don't have it so bad" with "Wouldn't we all like a job like that?"

Thank goodness this letter inspired a flurry of heated responses over the next few days, one of them from the husband of one of my colleagues, whose daughter also teaches. From his own experience, he argued that ". . . if you add five additional hours a day, on average, to each school day you come close to what I believe a dedicated teacher spends each day," not to mention time spent working during many of those vacations, too.

The media tell us how poorly we are doing compared to teachers in other regions, other countries, other eras. And every person we meet seems to feel entitled to air strong opinions about how we could and should be doing our jobs better than we are. Rather than ask, "Wouldn't we all like a job like that?" the letter-writer might have more legitimately asked, "Why would anyone want to do this job at all?" Here is my answer to that question.

A Reluctant Journey

My own journey toward teaching began in college and changed significantly during my first days in the classroom. My first steps toward this goal required overcoming several internal battles. I grew up in a family where my parents taught us children to respect our teachers but to strive for something more in our own career paths. So, during my junior year of college when I first thought to veer from my pre-med path, I struggled with my own definitions of success and the fear of letting my parents down. Sociology courses opening my eyes to the uneven playing fields of education called me to do something about the unfair world and its false promises to a whole population of kids. I resisted the call. Instead I became a mentor for a tutoring program supporting local "desegregation" kids who struggled in the unfamiliar school environments of affluent La Jolla, California. I eventually became the director of the program, as the students and our work with them drew me in.

Despite my growing interest in my work with struggling students, I did not want to become another student who "dropped down" to the humanities because I couldn't hack organic chemistry, or "O-chem," on a campus renowned for its sciences. Meanwhile, a snippet of conversation overheard outside a teacher education class one day didn't help. "Math was too hard, so I'm changing my major to teacher ed," someone confided to her friend. Why would I want to go into a field where even those in it didn't seem to respect what they were doing?

But the signposts in my life continued to lead me toward the classroom. A summer internship at Sesame Street in New York City exposed me to dedicated and passionate people with liberal arts degrees. The next school year I took a part-time job teaching for Mad Science, a company that provides on-site after-school science classes at schools around the country. During that same year, my sociology professor hired me as a research assistant on a project studying the effects of teaching practices on student engagement in nearby schools. By the time I graduated, I had decided to apply to schools of education to see what would happen. When a full scholarship including a stipend for living expenses came from Columbia University's Teachers College, it seemed to be a sign from the gods. I would resist my calling no more.

I aimed high. I wanted the world to recognize that teachers were just as professional as those choosing other career paths. I took educational policy classes to give me a wider view on my profession, where the standards movement promised to even the playing field for all students, no matter where they lived. Standards. Accountability. Professionalism. I stored these words in my mind as talismans of strength against the outside world's sometimes dismissive depictions of the dedicated people in my field.

And I took these words with me into the classroom, along with an image of my own professional self: clipboard in hand, grids to record my effective conferences with each student, high expectations for each one.

But things didn't go exactly as planned.

Rude Awakenings

During those first days, there were moments when the smallness of my job weighed on me, summoning the voices of doubt planted by my own disapproving parents. My days were not about closing big deals, making tons of money, or producing large quantities of anything. Sometimes, while I sharpened pencils, put up bulletin boards, cleaned up various spills, or frustratedly kicked that corner of the rug that always curled up and got in everybody's way, I wondered if my big dreams of making a difference could really come out of such small tasks. I grappled with my conflicting feelings of pride, frustration, and hope.

To make matters worse, my second grade students did not fall in love with me at first sight, and they did not enthusiastically do everything I asked of them. On the first day, Kevin threw rolled-up paper balls at me as I taught, Derrick sang through everything I said, Phil blankly swung his arms back and forth in the back corner of the room, and Stacey pulled her hat down over her head, not to emerge from her private retreat until recess.

Soon I would face my first real power struggle. It would challenge me further and lead me to reevaluate my focus as a teacher. In an attempt to keep Stacey's attention while we were correcting our daily oral language exercises, I called on her to answer one of the questions. She stared blankly. I waited. I had someone else give me the answer, and then asked her again. She stared, this time with a touch of defiance. I asked if she'd heard, and when she shook her head, I had the second student I'd asked repeat the answer again and came back to Stacey with the same question. In my student-should-answer-when-I-ask teacher mode, I waited. Her look of defiance grew. A seven-year-old's size is no measure of her will!

A New Perspective

Then, thankfully, my inability to understand why she would be doing this brought me to a halt. It suddenly occurred to me to ask myself what it was like to be her at this moment. Was she feeling picked on? Was she feeling self-conscious in front of her peers? Could she be trying to find a little bit of power in a situation that felt embarrassing and degrading? I stopped. While the whole class looked on, I took a deep breath. My body language must have physically changed as I said in a softer, more compassionate voice, "Stacey, I'm not trying to get you in trouble. I only wanted to include you in what we're doing right now and give you a chance to learn with us. But, if you want, I could call on someone else for now." Her look of defiance relented as she said, "Could you call on someone else?" I breathed a silent sigh of relief as my heart broke for what I had begun to do.

The following day, I sat down with Stacey before we corrected our work as a class, guiding her through the words and sentences in a way that let her succeed; I gave her the answers when she needed them while reassuring her that I knew she didn't really need my help. As her confidence grew, she was able to do more and more on her own, correctly. Because she knew she had all the right answers by the time the class corrected the assignment, she even raised her hand to offer her answers. It affected the whole rest of her day in the classroom.

After school, I remembered something that my husband's mother had said to me before the school year had started: "You must really love kids." My initial reaction had been annoyance, wondering what loving kids had to do with anything. I was a professional—dedicated to my job and committed to the hard work that it demanded. Why couldn't people stop referring to the summer vacations, the love for children, the playing with kids? This was serious work.

But in Taiwan my mother-in-law had been a grade school teacher for thirty-five years herself. And coming from another teacher just before I started my first year of teaching, these words had caught me off guard. She was the first teacher who'd said them to me. That afternoon, as I reflected on how my authoritarian actions had almost crushed Stacey, I discovered the wisdom in her words. In my dogged pursuit of professionalism, I had inadvertently forgotten to be human.

Why had I felt the need to push Stacey to answer that inconsequential question? In the heat of the moment I had equated my competence as a teacher with my ability to get her to do as I said. The truth was that her defiance had made me feel vulnerable to my own deepest fear: being inept at a job that I had put so much of myself into. My instinct to protect my own teacherly pride and feelings of self-worth had blinded me to how my actions might affect my students. After all my focus on professionalism, I realized that real difference-making would in fact require love—the kind that could enable me to make myself vulnerable to my students. Standards would indeed provide a clear target to aim for in our teaching of skills and concepts. It took Stacey to remind me that teaching our students requires seeing them as real people and caring enough to meet them where they are—even when that demands a shaky leap of faith. Teaching students takes opening our hearts to them, even while realizing that in this age of test-scores-above-all, those outside our classrooms seem convinced that the best way to improve our students' learning is to strong-arm us into shoving them along an assembly line of lessons and tests meant to keep us "accountable" for what we teach them.

A Renewed Vision of Professionalism

Since those first days, I've tried to keep the epiphany I had with Stacey close to me. Don't get me wrong; I don't think it will ever come easily or naturally. Opening my heart to my students is still the same, scary leap of faith each time I take it. It's still fraught with the same self-doubts: Am I letting this or that student get away with too much? Am I acting with compassion or lenience? Will my decision here give this student the courage to push my limits even further tomorrow?

Despite these doubts and insecurities, in the end, teaching with my heart wide open meant choosing empathy over "authority" in the face of Stacey's wall of defiance. Staying true to this conviction has meant different things with different students over the years. It's meant making time to play basketball with Kevin every Friday at lunch even though I didn't start out liking him. It's meant crying with Derrick because I'd almost punished him for talking again, only to discover that he'd been whispering to everyone, "Let's all say we're sorry to Ms. Cheng for interrupting." It's meant telling Melissa how much her stealing hurt my feelings, then giving her back the stickers she stole, along with a note telling her that I would love her even when she made mistakes.

Four years of teaching has confirmed my realization that true professionalism comes from having a heart for our students. The good news is that I've found that the more I take these leaps of faith, the more I have the courage to go out on the ledge the next time I'm looking across the abyss. With each chance I've taken, I've forged some kind of connection, large or small, acknowledged or not. And I try to hold onto the moments when my vulnerability led to good things . . . like Stacey giving me a high-five and a hug on her way out the door, and Kevin (the one who threw paper at me while I taught that first day) at my door two years later, asking me if I'd come out and play ball with him and his friends. There's that memory of Derrick, coming up and taping "good teacher" medals to my shoulder as I teach a lesson to the class. There's the coffee cup Melissa made for me decorated with those stickers she stole, on which she wrote, "I love you too."

Not every student with whom I forge a connection catches up in the academic sense; it's not a silver bullet that cures kids of their struggles. Although Stacey made substantial growth during that second grade year, she did not leave me performing at grade level. And our confrontation during those first days of school was not, by any means, our last. In the eyes of a test-score-driven system of accountability, she still failed. But she left my class with her head held higher than when she came in. She went into the next grade without her once-needed hat drawn down over her eyes. She'd made friends. Maybe she'd gained some self-confidence to help her in the uphill climb of catching up.

We Are Passionate Professionals

What brings me to teach is my desire for professionalism in our field. But it's also a love for my students. No, it's not the trivialized "love of children" that some people use to equate teachers' jobs with glorified baby-sitting. It's a courageous love that lets us look at our students' struggles with a critical eye on our own actions. It's a committed love that gives us the energy to help our students believe in the best possible versions of themselves by treating them as if they already were. It's a rewarding love that allows us to witness our students' growth with a fierce pride that threatens us with tears of happiness.

Maybe my neighbor who wrote that first letter to the editor was right. Those of us who choose the teaching profession may not have it so bad even if we do occasionally look frazzled at the end of the day. Sure, we might cry more on the job than other professionals. We might even experience days that make us want to pull our hair out. But once in a while, we get to feel the full force of our actions making a difference in a child's life. And in that moment we no longer wonder why anyone would choose to become a teacher at all. We know, from the depths of our hearts.

About the Author Pam Cheng is an associate director of the San Jose Area Writing Project, California, where she also served as the co-director for the 2004 invitational summer institute. She teaches third grade in Sunnyvale, California.

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