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Professionalizing Our Profession

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, January 2, 2014

I have a colleague who entered teaching after many years in another profession. She teaches middle school mathematics in an urban setting. Her class is culturally and economically diverse. She has spent her teaching career in the same school and has witnessed many changes in the community in which the school is located. Having had many opportunities to collaborate with her, I both admire and envy the professionalism that she brings to her classroom and her colleagues. What is it about her that makes her an excellent mathematics teacher as well as an effective advocate for her students and her colleagues?

What characteristics make a mathematics teacher a true professional? How do we build a culture of professionalism in our classrooms, our schools, and our districts? Although many teachers are naturals in the classroom, most of us put a great deal of effort into growing toward excellence throughout our careers. It is likely that those who make it look easy are those who work the hardest!

Lifelong Learning
 
True professionals are lifelong learners. Formal educational experiences are only the beginning. High-quality professional development offerings must be available to teachers—and professional teachers regularly take advantage of them to develop and improve their teaching practice. Focusing on building deeper mathematical content knowledge within and beyond the grade band that teachers teach provides the foundation for a better understanding of the mathematical connections among topics and across grade levels. Increasing pedagogical knowledge, putting new instructional ideas into practice and reflecting on the impact that those strategies have on student learning are common to all professional teachers. The often-overlooked professional growth opportunity is attending to student thinking, including exploring how students develop mathematical ideas and apply their understanding—and considering how we can develop an instructional toolbox to ensure that all students deeply understand the mathematics that they are learning.

Professional networking is another avenue for lifelong learning. The Internet has introduced many diverse opportunities for professional networking. Some are highly conducive to and supportive of professional growth—others not so much. Membership and involvement in professional organizations, such as your local Affiliate, state Affiliate, and NCTM, offer you a plethora of professional materials and the opportunity to network with colleagues outside your school or district. Think about the saying, “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always gotten.” Sharing ideas with teachers outside you immediate school environment can open doors to new and exciting ideas.

Collaboration
 
True professionals do not close the classroom door and teach. Rather, they are important contributors to professional learning communities in their schools. Effective communities of practice can take many different forms. They might consist of mathematics teachers from a grade level, a vertical team, or a group of colleagues, including classroom teachers, administrators, university mathematics educators, and mathematicians. Together, they collaborate on effective teaching practices and move toward understanding how students are learning. They examine and analyze student work. They discuss student misconceptions and how to address them. They plan lessons and support one another in teaching them, whether through formal lesson study or by co-teaching a lesson. Professionals work together to improve their practice and to improve the success of their students.

Leadership
 
Leadership takes many forms. We are all leaders in our classrooms. Our students look up to us and take direction from both our teaching and our actions. As the teaching profession continues to recognize the importance of collaborative structures to ensure excellence, opportunities for supporting colleagues both in and out of the school setting are becoming more plentiful. Professionalism demands that we step out of our personal space. Mentor a new teacher or a teacher who is new to a grade level. Form an after-school book club that reads and discusses an article from a professional journal or a book on a topic of interest. As more districts move to classroom coaching, consider taking on this role to help support other classroom teachers. Master teachers often take on leadership roles in facilitating professional development.

Advocacy
 
Professionals advocate for students. Although parents, administrators, and others have the best intentions, no one knows students’ academic needs as well as masterful teachers. Lifelong learning opportunities, collaboration, and leadership help to inform important decisions about student learning and success and show us how we can work better with parents and administrators.

The standards era has brought urgency to advocating at the local, state, and national levels. As professionals, we must work together to share information on mathematics education with parents and with numerous decision makers—administrators, boards of education, and legislators—to ensure that they do what is best for students.

As I think about my friend and what makes her truly a professional, I see many of the characteristics described above. The arrival of the new year is a good time for each of us to take stock on our own professionalism and think about what we can do to support our students and to support the most noble profession—teaching.

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