Who Cares: The Case for Professionalism in the Classroom

Too often teachers relegate professionalism to doctors, lawyers, bankers, and company CEOs. They say, “Why does it matter what I look like or sound like? They’re just children and young people.” I was guilty of thinking this way at times. And then one day I returned to the classroom after being away for several days while a substitute filled in for me. A young lady in one of my high school English classes came up when I returned and greeted me, “Thank you, Mrs. Earwood, for fixing your hair every day.” My first thought, “Wow, is that all she’s getting from my class.” Then I realized that what I looked like did make a lot of difference to her and how she received everything that I taught.

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The substitute had obviously missed that memo.  But everything about us—our attitudes, our conduct, and our appearance—is on display every day all day long. So, what are we portraying about real life, about our lives? Daily walking with the Lord and living a consistent Christian life in the classroom can be a challenge and quite trying at times, but Christian education is a life-impacting, play-for-keeps business that we can’t afford to get wrong.

The consequences and impact of our teaching and living are too important and long-lasting for us to be nonchalant about our responsibility. Haim Ginott, a Jewish teacher and psychologist said:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a person’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a person humanized or de-humanized.”

Without a professional approach to the classroom and teaching, teachers lose a dimension of influence that results in limited effectiveness.

  • A teacher’s appearance, conduct, and attitude will affect the quality of his/her work in the classroom
  • A teacher’s appearance, conduct, and attitude toward his/her work will affect the attitude that students take toward the teacher and their education. Dr. Harry Wong addresses this concept in The First Days of School (pp. 50-58).
  • A teacher’s appearance, conduct, and attitude will affect the attitude that others, including parents, have toward him/her.

Our concern for professionalism and desire for excellence affects not only the attitudes and behavior of our students but also their academic progress. Leo Casey in The Quest for Professional Voice (2007) (ATF Publications) stated,

“It is now widely agreed that a qualified, experienced teacher, expert in pedagogy and in subject material, has more of a positive effect on a student’s learning than any other school factor, including class size, quality of the academic program and curriculum, and school mission and size. By contrast, unprepared and inexperienced teachers lacking the fundamental tools and essential knowledge of teaching have a negative effect on a student’s learning, and a student seldom recovers from having such teachers three years in a row.”

Volumes have been written on professionalism in the workplace and much of the advice can be applied to the classroom and education, but three areas of focus will help us check up on our professionalism in the classroom:

  • First, think like a professional. 

Do you think of yourself as a professional—one who has great skill, is competent and capable?

Do you strive for excellence in your classroom management and presentation?

Do you seek to improve through continued professional development, reading, etc.?

Do you take care of your health so that you can be the best that you can be emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually? Teaching is a demanding job.

  • Second, act like a professional.

Do you speak like a professional? What effect does your voice have on your students? How do your words affect them? See Prov. 22:20-21; Eph. 4:29; Phil. 4:8; Col. 4:6.

Is your posture and movement indicative of a professional? Energetic, enthusiastic, modest. What is your body language communicating?

Do you treat others graciously and respectfully? Our students learn more by our example than by our words.

Are you prepared for class? Do you strive to be on time, efficient, and organized?

Do you have good manners and use good etiquette?

Do you still have a sense of humor?

  • Third, look like a professional.

As Christian teachers, our appearance should make three impressions:

  • First, does your appearance convince others of your Christianity or your worldliness? Modesty for women is critical when teaching young men, and young ladies desperately need a godly example.
  • Second, does your appearance convince others of your gender or send a mixed message?
  • Third, is your appearance appropriate and safe for the classroom and tasks that you have to perform or sloppy or extreme? For example, hair style and shoes.

Reflecting on Professionalism:

How do other professionals in my region of the country dress?

Do my students’ parents think of me as a professional because I look like, act like, and think like a professional educator?

Do I set the example or raise the bar for gender appropriateness, modesty, and appropriateness for my students?

What areas of my thinking need to be more professional?

What areas of conduct need my attention?

How could my appearance be more professional while maintaining a Christian distinctiveness?

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Debbie is Administrative Assistant at South Carolina Association of Christian Schools (SCACS) in Columbia, SC. She works regularly with school accreditation / teacher certification, professional development, and directs Church Child Care Network, a subsidiary of SCACS. She and her husband, Edward have three daughters; she enjoys music, travel, and her grandchildren.

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  • Great reminders! Thanks, Mrs. Earwood, for a timely article. We have great teachers at our school, but we’ll be forwarding this to them all to encourage to keep up the good work.

  • Edward Earwood

    Sharing an article with your teachers, Jim, is a great idea. Glad you found the article helpful.