3. Professional Discipline

The new learning infrastructure requires strength and lasting endurance. It must be built with sterner stuff than the ways schools and districts are structured today.

The vertical and unitary chain of command process now prevalent in K-12 districts must become more horizontal. To make professional accountability less a matter of supervisory expectations. More like mutual support systems and disciplined team dynamics.

Horizontal management in schools is typical of the way hospitals work. With administration doing what it does best. And professional medical personnel doing what they do best. Coming together when organizational and professional needs require it, such as when patient care requires facility upgrades, increased budgets, and equipment purchases.

Replace “patient care” with “student learning” and the same setup can be true for schools.

Professional discipline assumes the existence of personal accountability. Thereby making weak links in a faculty unacceptable to teaching colleagues. In the horizontal organizational configuration, teachers are employed with the expectation they will adhere to excellence by their new associates. Excellence in terms of curriculum design expertise as well as effective instructional prowess.

The new learning infrastructure will only succeed if professional discipline is visibly active. Evident in student learning quality as measured by many types of performance.

The best way to explain how that system works is through the eyes of a fictious young teacher who was taught the meaning of professional discipline and tried to adhere to its principles.

Mary Chapman’s Story – Part 1

My name is Mary Chapman and I teach seventh grade science. I am 28 years old and this is my fifth year of teaching.

In school year 2020˗21, I was expected to teach using three different configurations. In-classroom instruction was attempted using staggered schedules to accommodate social distancing for the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Total virtual instruction was also incorporated for part of the school year. A hybrid model was used for brief periods, which incorporated both onsite and virtual instruction.

“Normal” classroom configurations were attempted late in the school year.

This kind of teaching was a significant challenge for many reasons. The first was my own safety and that of my students. I avoided being infected by the virus. Students who tested positive were quarantined. School officials were diligent in making certain only students and teachers who tested negative were allowed on campus or in the classrooms.

Nothing about teaching during a pandemic was easy. But I was fortunate in many ways. Part of it was due to the stability of my early years and the internal confidence it gave me.

I was raised in a loving and supportive middle-class family. My childhood and teenage years, aside from the usual challenges, were positive. I did well enough in public school to qualify for college admissions and was socially active. My involvement with sports was, and still is, focused on tennis.

After college I married. My husband is an accountant and we have a two-year-old daughter. Our family life is quiet yet fulfilling.  

I am thankful for my unique teacher preparation program and the modus operandi of the school district that hired me. At first, I did not realize my good fortune.

But participation in professional conferences and interactions with teachers from other districts helped me understand why I am so lucky.

Especially so after we were hit with the COVID-19 Pandemic.

I slowly learned there can be vast differences in the quality of teacher education programs. And the same is true of how public schools and districts are managed.

Those two facts keep me appreciative of my past and current life as an educator. Because both my undergraduate preparation, and policies of the district I joined, are good representations of professional and organizational quality.

My professional preparation for teaching gave me the skills and self-discipline to handle difficult situations. And the school district that hired me has a decision-making and action-taking system in place that keeps everything on the rails.

Professional discipline is not just an attitude or demeanor. Nor is it simply compliance with directives issued by those in authority. It is the external manifestation of strongly held internal values.

My Preparation for Teaching

Standard teacher education programs for elementary grade instructors stress sufficient expertise in core subjects, grades K-6.  “Self-contained” classrooms at those levels require teachers to become acceptably proficient in each of the big four disciplines: mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies.

Typically, elementary teachers qualified to work in middle school grades 7 and 8 must take additional courses in the field being taught. In my case, I received 15 credit hours in specified science courses.

Students prepared to teach grades 9 through 12 must major in one or more subjects, earning a minimum of 45 semester hours in each. Methods of teaching courses are added.

Those prepared to teach high school may be assigned to grades 7 and 8, within their certified fields, with no additional requirements.

Except for an orientation course that might be offered in the first two years of a college program, no professional course is typically taught before the third year. All courses required to become a teacher are usually taught in the junior and senior years, including onsite field experiences in area schools.

My preparation followed much the same pattern. The exception was how the methods of teaching courses were taught.

Professional Discipline Expanded

Professional discipline can be defined as giving allegiance to principles established as being hallmarks of integrity.

I agree with that definition. But my understanding of the term was greatly expanded in my teacher education program.

I entered teacher education with neither the narrow nor expanded professional discipline already in place.

But my upbringing and other positive influences over time made me ready for the values that support both interpretations.

The “expanded” version includes:

Who a teacher is in terms of honesty, curiosity, creativity, conviction, openness, commitment, dependability, and drive to serve is more important than any other personal characteristic.

What a teacher believes about the purpose of education informs and underscores the instructional process and subject-matter learning. Making “what” an essential supplement to the inculcation of student skills and knowledge areas.

Why a teacher seeks employment in a school or district is to seek opportunities to encourage the personal, academic and vocational growth of students over a lifetime. As part of a team of educators who share those same convictions.

How teaching is accomplished is determined by student readiness. And mutual engagement with, and excitement in, learning as a human gift that results in a more satisfying and worthwhile life.

Where and when are both key considerations, especially during a pandemic or other social crisis. Teaching and student learning can occur anywhere and anytime, not just in a school’s classroom during prescribed hours.

When one looks at how methods courses are taught in most universities, they tend to focus on instructional strategies. Some of them delve into personal characteristics of the prospective teacher. And examine a novice teacher’s beliefs.

But they do not always explore what lies behind the strategies and beliefs. By examining the potential that lies within and finding ways to pull that to the surface. By helping aspirant teachers become more than they ever thought they could be.

Methods courses in my university turned me into a different person. I was forced to rethink educational purposes. To see possibilities instead of accepting a stagnant status quo.

For years “The Madeline Hunter Model of Mastery Learning” was accepted as the gold standard of instruction. As a direct instructional model, it had many good points.

But my professors believed focusing everything on the “how” was not enough. That it was wrong to assume teachers were just intermediate agents between curriculum and student learning. 

That it was wrong to assume the “what” (curriculum) always came from somewhere else. A textbook, other printed resource, or published standards.

I did not realize it then, but that was revolutionary thinking for public schools. Many believed controlling both curriculum AND instruction was asking too much of mere public-school teachers.

Curriculum was the purview of researchers, scholars, professors, and other recognized experts in their fields.

My teacher education professors thought differently. That transformed me in ways I hope is now transforming my students.

 ©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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