Professionalism: it’s more than skin deep

Head’s meetings give me a chance to think without constantly having to juggle the needs of dozens of students at once.  Our most recent one had us developing a school mission statement.  The idea was that if staff develop the mission they’ll be more likely to back it.  It was an agonizing process of planning by committee, but we got it done.

In the process of developing this statement one of the more golden heads suggested that focusing on the dress code would reinvigorate a sense of professionalism in the staff.  I don’t entirely disagree, dressing appropriately does help present a sense of professionalism, but thinking that an enforced dress code will somehow improve professionalism in staff had me thinking about what is involved in a teacher’s sense of professionalism.

Visual cues like dress codes felt like the crust of something much more complicated, so I went to work on an orange.

If you want a sense of a teacher’s professionalism start with their qualifications.  Do they have advanced qualifications (honours, post-graduate, master-technical, etc) in the subject areas that they teach?  

Have they expanded their teacher training from what they graduated teacher’s college with?  Do they demonstrate the kind of life long learning they claim is so important in their students?

Are they attending subject specific PD to improve their ability to teach this material in the most current and comprehensive manner possible?  Do they create curriculum?  Serve on their subject council?  Work to improve learning in their subject area in other ways?

Have they developed a diverse personal learning network (this doesn’t necessarily have to be digital).  Are they known in their school, in their board, in their province, in their country, in their world, as a collaborative and supportive colleague?  Do they encourage growth in learning?  Do they interact with other educators to improve their craft?

Have they taken on school leadership roles?  Are they known in the school as a dependable fixer?  A colleague who puts the needs of the school before their own?   Do they work in other aspects of the school?  Student competitions?  Sports?  Clubs?  School events?  Academic initiatives?

Have they ever supported the organization that protects their profession?  Volunteering for union work says a lot about how much a professional is willing to put themselves out to protect their profession.  It also demonstrates a sense of belonging to that profession.

There is probably much more you could put into the orange, but these many things are what feed the skin of the orange (the appearance of the teacher).  Dress codes and appearance do matter, but professionalism is much more than skin deep.


At its root professionalism is a self driven desire to improve one’s field of work.  Being self driven is the key to professionalism and the major difference between an employee and a professional.  The professional takes their work to heart and self-identifies with how they are doing it, an employee just does what they are paid for and no more.   Employees require direction.  Professionals are self directed. Unfortunately, I know a fair number of teachers who approach teaching as an employee.  If you want to resurrect teacher professionalism it doesn’t mean ties for all, it means getting those disaffected employees to approach their profession with a sense of authorship.

… unless you play for Newcastle

The other morning I was watching Premier League Football and heard about how Newcastle has hired an motivational speaker for its players.  The millionaire players who never had to grow up and get paid more per week to play a game than I make in a year need motivation?  This speaks to professionalism in a big way.  Having been coddled and paid ludicrous sums of money since they were teenagers, many of these players have no idea how good they have it playing a game that the rest of us pay to play for leisure.  Can you be a professional without a profound appreciation of the importance of the work that you do?  This situation does point to a key element of professionalism:  an unwavering commitment to your profession and a willingness to seek constant improvement.  You’re not a professional unless you’re always on the clock, always ready to perform beyond minimal expectations.

A doctor doesn’t get to say she’s on holiday when someone has a heart attack on the beach where they happen to be vacationing.  It is professionalism that drives her to say that she is a doctor and perform her duty.  When you see Mike Holmes losing his mind about poor craftsmanship in a home reno you’re seeing a man railing against a lack of professionalism.  When Newcastle has to hire a motivational speaker to convince its millionaire players to do their job, you’re looking at a deep lack of professionalism.

Professionalism seems to germinate in people where the work they are doing is valued, valuable and challenging.  The professional becomes attached to their profession, self-identifying with it and authoring their approach to it.

Professionalism isn’t conformity, it’s empowerment.  Many workplaces use the word professionalism while offering staff no opportunity to critically assess and improve their process.  In such dictated working environments professionalism is a catch phrase for doing what you’re told promptly and without question (ie: being manageable).  These workplaces have a strange democratic flatness to them – we’re all professionals here at Xmart!  Perhaps this is why professionalism is so confused in the modern mind – we have a misplaced idea of what it is.

Out of high school I became I millwright’s apprentice.  One of my mentors, Leo, was an older Caribbean gentleman who was incapable of sugar coating things, though his honesty was presented with a Jamaican easy-goingness that made it easy to listen to.  One day he told me the story of our department supervisor.  This was the guy who used to take night shifts and then roll himself under a truck and fall asleep for hours.  He had one of the worst work records in the shop and was known for being the guy you shouldn’t go to see if you were having technical problems.  He got promoted off the floor to minimize the damage he was doing there.  Leo looked me in the eye and said, ‘that’s what most management is.  If they were good at something, they’d still be doing it.’  I’ve tended to approach management with a suspect eye ever since.

Leo was proud of his mechanical skills, he was a master of his trade.  He took great pains to perform his job at the highest level and continually looked for challenges to grow his skill and knowledge.  That one of the most impactful mentors I’ve ever had wore coveralls while the clown running the department showed up in shirt and tie every day has meant I’ve always preferred to see what people do rather than what they look like before I start to form an opinion about their sense of professionalism.

Between the smoke and mirrors business-appearance sense of professionalism and the demonstrated excellence of the true professional there is a lot of social static.  Things are further complicated by organizations eager to use the term professionalism as an adjective to encourage compliance and conformity to corporate norms, but for professionalism to germinate the person doing the work has to have control over their approach to the work – and germination is indeed the process.  You can’t force professionalism with a dress code.  What you can do is create a fertile environment where people are engaged in their work.  Where the work is challenging and complex enough that it makes demands on the worker to continuously develop their own approaches to it rather than being managed into a conformed response.  Systematized work environments are the death of professionalism.

In spite of the business blah blah that greets you when you look up professionalism, there isn’t a single, regimented pathway to it unless you’re in business where your can-do attitude and proper attire matters more than any specialized skills you may have.  Professionalism blooms out of expertise and works in service to it.  Some of the best teachers I’ve ever had wore overalls, many of the worst wore suits.  Appearance can be as much a distraction as it can be an indicator of professionalism (unless you’re in business).


True Colours offers some real insights into personality types.  Being a green / blue I’m not beholden to social expectations or image.  The Gold who suggested adhering to dress codes is though.  Where she thinks that professionalism can be generated by dressing nicely, I’ve experienced the opposite.  I try to keep this in mind when I hear someone suggest something that I have an immediate negative reaction to.  What works for them might work for them…