Professional Tug Of War

Angela Buzan Education, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership

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Picture a game of tug-o-war. On one end of the rope is you and all of your colleagues, on the other end is all of your shared responsibilities. In order to keep a school running safely and progressively, the two sides must remain balanced while also demonstrating the basics of professionalism: dress, attendance, teamwork, collaboration, ethics, reliability, and accountability.

Let’s roll with the weird and keep the analogy going.

It’s August and the teachers are refreshed, optimistic, and exceptionally collaborative. Before taking hold of the rope, they high-five and hug and cheer and promise to finish strong.

A few weeks go by and a few colleagues decide to take time off, so they sit on the sidelines to watch. A few weeks later a number of teachers get sick—they too congregate on the side to recharge. By September a couple of teachers realize this game would be so much easier without the dress attire so they change into Chacos, t-shirts, and jeans. By October, a small group of teachers realize they can show up late and leave early without getting caught.

Half of the teachers still on the rope are looking pretty haggard, even in their heels, blazers, and ties. Sweaty and exhausted, they hold on strong and even keep cheering. The other half have decided the game is being taken a little too seriously—they keep both hands on the rope and lean back but decide not to exert any more force than necessary.

The teachers on the sidelines are having a fantastic time: they’re having relaxing conversations, sending students off to buy donuts, and are even taking time to catch up on personal bills, e-mails, and Facebook! A few negative nellies in the back entertain the group with gossip about those grumpy teachers who are just trying way too hard.

Alright, alright, alright. I’ll cut the analogy short before it becomes Animal Farm fan fiction.

The point here is that professionalism matters. It matters for teacher morale; it matters for student safety; it matters for the reputation of the profession. If I didn’t truly believe these elements were a factor, I’d show up to work in an Adam Sandler tuxedo: baggy sweatpants and a hockey jersey.

Far too often, it is the habits of the unprofessionals who inspire board members, policy makers, principals, and even voters to revise the rules for everyone. Suddenly the standards, hours, and accountability measures radicalize in an attempt to reform. When an effective and hard-working teacher goes to the public to request support and compensation, the public points back to the teachers on the sidelines and asks “For what?! I’d kill to have a job like that!

The gap between teacherpreneurs and pseudo-professionals is ever increasing, and though it may be tempting to blame it on the system (or “the man” or that one politician), much of the blame rests closer to home: on our own campuses.

At this point in the article, it seems I should pose a solution, but I fear I’d only perpetuate the let’s-change-everything-for-everyone mentality. Instead, I suggest that every teacher reading this makes it a point to thank their colleagues who exemplify the best of the profession. It’s a pithy pitch, but one that might inspire those teachers who feel unnoticed, unappreciated, and generally burnt out.



Angela Buzan is a full time English teacher in the Flagstaff Unified School District. She has thirteen years’ teaching experience and has taught all grades seven through twelve. In 2010, she received a Fulbright Teacher Exchange fellowship to Kolkata, India; in 2012 she achieved National Board Certification; in 2014 she earned a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Design and Instruction. Her current challenge is to out-read Gavin, in third period, who typically polishes off three novels a week.

Comments 4

  1. Eve Rifkin

    Some of the most professional teachers I know come to work in Chacos, t-shirts, and jeans, mostly because they are knee-deep in project-based learning, doing field work, or helping kids construct things. A jacket and tie just won’t do for these folks. But I do wonder about what I think you’re referring to as a sort of commitment drop-off that seems to happen so early in the school year. What motivates teachers to do their best all year long? I have many more questions than answers. Thanks for posting this agitating (in the best possible sense) piece.

  2. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    (raises hand) In defense of people who pull up late, if I am late, it is usually because I am on the computer at home working on my professional responsibilities. :) Time flies! I also know folks who put on a nice show of professionalism around campus, but are deeply unprofessional in their interactions with kids or gossipy conversations on the way to the parking lot.

    I agree, professionalism is important. I also think it is important to recognize that professionalism is multifaceted, and not just a matter of how we dress or the particular minute we pull in or out of the parking lot. Also, as folks who feel like we are tugging on the rope, we may not realize the underlying reasons why a colleague might withdraw, or the private conversations that are already happening with administrators about the issue.

    But, that could just be the part of me completely in denial of the fact that there are some people who are simply lazy, selfish or cynical, or who haven’t had good mentors. I am guessing that in this teacher job market, at times administrators are willing to accept or try to work with these types more because they are harder to replace with another, more professional, teacher.

    At any rate, it never hurts to have a reminder of how our professionalism impacts the rest of our campus.

  3. Donnie Lee

    Angela, I really enjoyed this piece. I have wondered, at times, are teachers our own worst enemies? I do believe there are many times in which a situation happens and a teacher exhibits a behavior that shows our profession in an un-flaterring image. The public won’t consider the reasons behind the image. Here is an example that I know of. A teacher is on the playground with his or her class monitoring for recess duty. A parent drives by the playground and snaps a picture of the teacher on their phone. What do you think the parent assumes? Maybe the teacher really is on Facebook or texting with a friend. Maybe the teacher is talking to the office and are attempting to locate a student who needs to go home. People rarely give positive assumptions. So they go to the principal and then a new reform comes out where phones are no longer allowed for teachers to use during school hours. I think teachers need to be aware of this idea that if a parent/taxpayer saw them at any given time, would that image of their behavior be above reproach? I think professionalism can be reflected in our dress and attendance. However, our behaviors, attitudes, and speech are much better indicators of professionalism.

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