A Professional View Of Teacher Training & Development
by Frank Farmer


Eldridge (2005) gives an insightful analysis of what such commonly used terms as professionalism, professional development, teacher development and teacher training may mean in an ELT context. He goes on to show how these definitions may generate conflicts of interest for trainees, trainers and institutions.

In this article, teacher training and development will be explored from a professional standpoint as a tool for resolving these conflicts of interest.


Eldrige’s view of professionalism is not unusual, and perhaps can ultimately be traced back to Goode’s (1969) account. Goode makes a list of the requirements for professionalism under the general headings of Professional knowledge and the Service ideal, and includes extended descriptions of all the usually accepted requirements of knowledge, skills and attitudes as well as the professional organizations needed to define and enforce standards. Goode holds that these are ‘generating traits’; that is, if a group of workers acquires these characteristics, it becomes professional. The causal link in this view is not proven. May it not be the case that professional approaches to the delivery of expert services in fact generate the observable attributes of professionalism?

Dingwall and Fenn (1987) examine professionalism in this light and show how professionalism may work as a socio economic system for the accountable delivery of expert services. The fundamental problem with expert services is that at first glance the expert holds all the cards. They claim to have the knowledge skills and attitudes to solve the client’s problem, but the client has no way of knowing whether the service could have been better, or just as good but cheaper, or whether undesirable outcomes could have been avoided. The client is vulnerable because of the difficult nature of the problems that are brought before professional advisers and the practical, emotional and financial consequences of failure to solve them. Each client’s problem is unique, and there is no book or web page that the client can consult to challenge professional advice. Dingwall and Fenn (1987: 61) point out that ‘the judgement of the professional stabilizes the unpredictable into a basis sufficiently reliable for human action’. That is their job.

These professional activities are controlled by society in two main ways. The most fundamental is the law suit for negligence or incompetence. Because professionals have to diagnose clients’ problems as well as framing them in a way that makes them soluble, they cannot resort to ‘small print’ to limit their responsibility. The problem with the law suit is that it only applies after something has gone wrong, and in any case needs the testimony of the professional peers of the accused expert to give evidence. Society’s second defence, then, is some kind of official recognition of the qualifications required for practice. But this too has problems. Charlatans can be well meaning as well as fraudulent, and the claims of any group of workers to be the only people able to solve difficult problems need to be examined very closely. Monopoly of practice can only be granted reluctantly and provisionally, and not to protect practitioners but to protect vulnerable clients.

This view proposes a strong position for professional bodies. A professional body is needed to make the argument in the first place for monopoly of practice to protect a vulnerable public. It is needed to act as gatekeeper so that only competent persons enter the profession, and to act as policeman against members who fail to uphold the standards of the profession. Competent members cannot be protected by the professional body if it does not cooperate fully in the discipline of incompetent members. Failure to do so would result in the loss of monopoly of practice. The Architects Registration Board (undated), for instance, gives its mission statement as ‘protecting the consumer and safeguarding the reputation of architects’. Contrary to popular belief, there is no conflict of interest in serving this dual function.

Professionalisation as a process has been described in two very different ways by Wilensky (1964) and Abbott (1991). Wilensky, examining evidence from a range of professions, sees it as a bottom up process in which practitioners sharing appropriate skills, knowledge and attitudes establish their competence in the eyes of the public, start a university level training programme, and finally apply for full professional status and monopoly of practice. Abbott cites evidence from the development of the medical profession in the USA to suggest that the whole apparatus of professional organization and education resulted from the imposition of mandatory regulation by the government as a top down process. However these opposing views come closer together if we accept that at the beginning of the process Abbott describes the distinction between real medical doctors and quacks was already clear, so that government would be negligent in not acting quickly to protect the public.

Professionalism in ELT

The issue, as has been shown, is not the protection of ‘qualified’ practitioners from losing their jobs to the unqualified, but rather the protection of vulnerable clients. The first question then is, are our clients practically, emotionally and financially vulnerable? Perhaps a case can be made for all three, as the consequences of failure to learn English do indeed have an impact in all of these in many parts of the world. The second question is more difficult. Who are the ‘qualified’ ELT practitioners and can they show that only they can do the job? One way of thinking about this may be to consider different routes towards qualified ELT practitioner status and to see where the locus of control in gatekeeper and police functions may lie.

One route towards qualified practitioner status may be through a mix of native speaker language skills, personal commitment, and in service training and development. People enter ELT for all sorts of reasons, but that does not automatically imply a lack of commitment. An example may be an educated native speaker, with a period of on the job training followed by something more formal like ICELT or DELTA. Although there may well be benefits to the practitioner in getting a qualification, it is not clear that clients benefit. After all, the practitioner entered without relevant qualifications, so that is presumably true of others in the organization too. The employing institution is in this case acting as both gatekeeper and policeman, and the criteria applied are not those of a professional organization.

Entry through academic qualifications is no better, in professional terms. Academics are supposed to be able to review the literature and contribute to it. But these skills have little to do with professional practice, and again the gatekeeper and policeman is the employing institution.

These gatekeeper and policing activities are not necessarily misplaced in institutions that value teacherly lore and skills. The teaching and learning of languages does in fact proceed, with some degree of success. Arguably, it is through the dedication of practicing teachers engaging in their own development that the teaching of languages comes closest to being a truly professional activity. It is a heartening thought, but unfortunately quite unfounded.

The problem with teacher craft is that it mainly serves the needs of teachers, and teacher needs are not the same as learner needs. Teachers need to be able to plan their work so that it fits into a working day, and carry out activities that make sense to them, both instinctively and in accordance with their preferred reading. Perhaps the gap between teacher and learner needs in a professional sense can best be illustrated by considering a short scenario, a hypothetical situation.

A learner enrolls in a school of English, is assigned to a group, attends faithfully and does all that the teacher asks, but makes poor progress and fails the final exam. Meanwhile, unknown to the teacher, the student has obtained a place in a British university and only needs an average score of 6.5 in IELTS to confirm both funding and the university place. On the strength of being enrolled in an English course in a good (and expensive) school, the student books an IELTS test but fails to achieve the required score. The teacher is in court facing charges of negligence and incompetence.

The law sets great store by the views of the reasonable person, and like everyone else, judges’ images of the reasonable person are modeled on him or herself. It will therefore occur to their lordships to ask the following questions:

  • What did the teacher do to discover the client’s purpose for taking classes?
  • What did the teacher do to ascertain whether the course offered might assist in those goals?
  • What did the teacher do to discover the client’s learning ability, limitations and potential?
  • What did the teacher do to discover the client’s starting level?
  • What did the teacher do to estimate whether the client’s goals could be achieved in the light of the above?
  • What did the teacher do to facilitate the use of learner abilities and minimize the effect of learner limitations?
  • What did the teacher do to keep progress towards the goal under review?
  • What did the teacher do to communicate clearly with the client the likelihood of reaching their goal?

Arguably, this is the professional agenda, and neither academic courses nor practical experience prepare teachers to deliver this service.

The case for professionalizing ELT

The scenario above gives a context for what we really do know how to do. Managing classroom or self access or ESP situations, organizing activities for meaningful communication, conceptualizing language and language learning, and writing objectives in such a way that their achievement can be verified are really difficult activities and we are good at them. As it happens, scattered around the literature there is a good deal of information on good practice in diagnosis. The rest is just administration, and it is not beyond the wit of able practitioners to learn to do it. So perhaps it can be accepted the professionalism is achievable and that our teacher, with suitable training, could give their lordships rational answers and expect colleagues to confirm them.

A professional approach to ELT would also allow us to think about our outstanding practitioners. Professionals must all attend to the points noted in the scenario, but beyond that we know that there are really marvelous teachers who have acquired their skills as much though reflective practice and hard won personal insight as through innate ability. What are we to do with them? In architecture, for instance, we know who they are and what they are for. They are for designing Reichstags and Millennium bridges. In ELT we do not know who they are, nor do we know what they are for, and until we do know both reflective practice and other forms of teacher development remain rather purposeless.

The research agenda too would benefit from a professional approach. The purpose of research is to establish and test knowledge, and Pratte (1981) offers a useful tripartite view of knowledge for the present purposes. He proposes Propositional knowledge (knowing something), Performative knowledge (knowing how to do something) and Dispositional knowledge (knowing to do something). The relative independence of these types of knowledge may be demonstrated by an example. Suppose, for instance, we wish to persuade children to wash their hands before eating. We may tell them about germs (propositional knowledge) and show them how to use soap and water to get rid of them (performative knowledge). But how much do they really have to know about microbiology or the best way of washing their hands to make the washing of hands (dispositional knowledge) a good idea? Surely it is a good idea anyway, even without microbiology or a study of hand washing techniques. The area of dispositional professional knowledge has been largely ignored by the research community, and performative knowledge too has been abandoned to hearsay and teacher lore. Professionals may or may not find themselves attracted to a particular theory of learning, but what they really need are good accounts of what works. They need to know who may be helped and who may be harmed by any procedure, how much, and under what circumstances, whether or not there is a satisfactory theoretical explanation. This kind of clinical research is both achievable and applicable as both performative and dispositional knowledge.

Finally, a professional approach to ELT would lead towards the formation of valid professional organizations, moving gatekeeper and policing functions away from teaching institutions and into the professional system of public accountability where they belong. Bottom up professionalism, starting with individual practitioner responsibilities, makes more sense than attempts to impose professionalism from above, and would be in line with Wilensky’s account of the development of other professions. Such professionalism would be local, culture sensitive, accountable and above all, achievable.


Abbott, A. 1991.‘The order of professionalization’ Work and Occupations18 355-384.
Architects Registration Board undated. ‘Architect’s Code, Standards of Conduct and Practice’[available on-line] http://www.arb.org.uk/frame.html [last accessed 19/06/03].
Dingwall, R . and P. Fenn 1987. ‘A respectable profession? Sociological and economic perspectives on the regulation of professional services’ International review of Law and Economics 7: 51-64.
Eldridge, J. 2005. ‘Rendering unto Caesar: the ambivalent case of in-service teacher education.’ Iatefl Teacher Development SIG newsletter1/05 6-10
Goode, W. J . 1969. ‘The Theoretical Limits of Professionalization’ in Etzione A (Ed.) The Semi- Professions and their Organization. New York: The Free Press.
Pratte, R. 1981. ‘Analytic philosophy of education: a historical perspective.’ in Solis, J. (Ed.) Philosophy of Education since mid- century. New York. Teachers College Press.
Wilensky, H. 1964 ‘The professionalization of everyone?’ American Journal of Sociology 70 137-158.


Frank Farmer has been a Profesor Investigador at the Universidad de Quintana Roo since 1996. He holds the COTE qualification in language teaching, is a certified oral examiner for Cambridge ESOL, is an examiner for IELTS, and has a Master of Education degree in Educational Technology and ELT from the University of Manchester.

His research interests include Self Access, the use of technology in language education, and professionalism in ELT and he has presented papers on these topics at national and international conferences, as well as publishing articles on professionalism.

His book on Professionalism in ELT comes out in 2006. He is also an architect registered to practice in the UK, and has never had an action for negligence or incompetence brought against him.

Recent publications:

Farmer, F. 2006. Professionalism in ELT. México, DF: Plaza y Valdés/ Universidad de Quintana Roo (ISBN: 970-722-509-2)

Farmer, F. 2006. Accountable professio nal practice in ELT. ELT Journal 60/2, ( ISSN 0951- 0893)

Farmer, F. 2005. Conceptualizing professionalism in ELT. In Beaven, B (ed.) IATEFL 2005 Cardiff Conference Selections . Canterbury: IATEFL (ISBN: 1 901095 02 9)

Farmer, F. and L. Vázquez Pérez . 2005. Ways of looking at professionalism in ELT. In Rodriguez Reyes, J. M. and J. M. González Freire (eds.) Proceedings XIX Foro de Especialistas Universitarias en Lenguas Extranjeras 29-43. Colima, Col. México: Universidad de Colima. (ISBN 970-692-255-5)

Farmer, F. and M.E. Llaven Nucamendi. 2004. A taxonomy of professionalism in ELT. In Garri do y Rivera, I. and M. Muñoz Gutierrez (eds.) Asociación Nacional Universitaria de Profesores de Inglés Conference preoceedings 2004 Puebla, Pue.: ANUPI (ISSN: 1870-2074)

Farmer, F. and M.E. Llaven Nucamendi. 2004. Towards professionalism in english language teaching. In Pender, J (ed.) Ten years of collaboration in ELT: Accounts from México. México, DF: Consejo Británico.

To the original article

Back to the articles index

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us — Online Development Courses — Lesson Plan Index 
Phonology —  English-To-Go Lesson  Articles Books
 Links —  Contact — Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2014© Developing Teachers.com