What does “I am a professional” mean and why is it important?

Over the years as a professional special educator, I came to appreciate the critical significance of developing strong diverse career-oriented special educators grounded in professionalism, and the belief that the quality of a child’s learning depends most heavily on the professionalism of the teacher. In this blog, I will examine and discuss the concept of a modern profession as it relates to special educators.

Let’s begin by debunking the idea that unlike law and medicine, the history of education prevents it from being a profession 1. Their histories and progress toward professionalization is not all that dissimilar.

With roots in the medieval period, “professional” connoted a commitment to a religious way of life, to be received formally into a religious order. It was only in the early nineteenth century that law and medicine began to be described as professions because they required “professed” specialized knowledge, shared values and wisdom, and a relationship of trust with others. However during this period neither medicine nor law had any formal certification or a body of agreed upon standards.

For example, President Abraham Lincoln never attended law school, never served as an apprentice, or never took a bar exam. He became a lawyer under an 1833 Illinois law with its only requirement being to “obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant’s good moral character.” It was in the late 19th century that Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School, developed what he called the case method to standardize the preparation of lawyers.

In 1885, Massachusetts became the first state to employ a written version of the bar exam. The bar exam was a series of subjectively graded essays up until 1972 when the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) developed the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) for efficiency, reliability, and validity 2.

Likewise in medicine it was not until the Flexner Report at the beginning of the 20th century that the medical profession in the U.S. widely accepted science as a basis for the development of medical standards for the preparation of doctors 3. It was during this same period that the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) began developing examinations for prospective doctors that states use in licensing 4.

In the U.S. the application of the modern concept of professional to education dates back at least to 1913 when John Dewey compared the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association reflecting that the professoriate would become a self-governing profession 5.

Just like medicine and law, teacher credentialing in the nineteenth century was irregular and pragmatic, and the requirements for entry into teaching were pragmatic and irregular. Similar to medicine and law, education expanded into undergraduate and graduate schools of education where both pedagogy and subject matter were being studied 6. Colleges began preparing education specializations and educators began creating a modern education profession with its own preparation programs and its own professional standards. Just as a special education note, in 1922 the Council for Exceptional Children was formed to develop professional standards for special educators 7.

The modern concept of profession matured during the 20th century with a number of common characteristics in law, medicine, and education. It is these very characteristics that provide education and special education with a coherent map of action for how to move the profession into the 21st century. So let’s stop hand-wringing about whether education is a profession, and let’s consider what it means to say, “I am a professional.”

Richard Mainzer has been a professional special educator serving in positions at the local, state, national, and international levels. For over fifteen years, as principal for professional standards and services at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), he collaborated with colleagues nationally and internationally to develop, manage, and evaluate professional standards and practices for special educators.


1 Kincaid, S. & Pecorino, P. (2004). The Profession of Education: Responsibilities, Ethics and Pedagogic Experimentation Retrieved October 22, 2015 from http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/Profession-Education-ch-2-Education-as-a-Profession.html.

2 BarMax. (2015). BarMax Bar Exam Prep Retrieved October 22, 2015 from https://getbarmax.com/the-bar-exam-a-brief-history/.

3 Duffy, T.P. (2011). Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine Retrieved October 22, 2015 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3178858.

4 Melnick, D., Dillon, G., and Swanson, D. (1921). Statistics of Land-grant Colleges and Universities United States Office of Education cited in Medical licensing examinations in the United States. Journal of Dental Education 5(66), 395.

5 Dewey, J. (1915, Jan. 29). The American Association of University Professors Introductory Address. Science 150(41), 1048. Retrieved October 22, 2015 from http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/socialsciences/ppecorino/Profession-Education-ch-2-Education-as-a-Profession.htm.

6 Ravitch, D. (2002). White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers Retrieved October 22, 2015 from http://direct.ed.gov/admins/tchrqual/learn/preparingteachersconference/ravitch.html.

7 Mainzer, R. (In press). What every special educator must know: Ethics, standards, and guidelines (7th edition). Arlington, VA. Author.