Professionalizing Early Childhood Education: What’s the Difference Between “Occupation” and “Profession”? | Policy [M]atters, Episode 6

by Stacie Goffin and Teri Talan

Policy Matters is a quarterly video chat series between Teri Talan of the McCormick Center and a guest author in early childhood policy. Our guest author for Episodes 5-8 is Stacie Goffin. Want to catch up or revisit the series? Explore previous chats and topics here.

The topic of Episode 6 was inspired by a comment posted on Episode 5, in which Kate Tarrant wrote, “I hear you talking about a real paradigm shift in which the complex and important work of nurturing young children’s whole selves is valued and aspiring educators enter into our field with high expectations and capacity to support children and families. So much of our systems are set up to compensate for not getting this right from the start. What thoughts do you have related to getting us from here to there?”

In Episode 6, Stacie Goffin and Teri Talan lay the foundation for addressing this question by solidifying the distinction between occupation and profession. Stacie’s ideas are largely based on drawing parallels to other fields—medicine, architecture, and law, to name a few—that transformed from occupations to professions. Teri expands on these ideas by sharing findings from Finnish Lessons, a book by Pasi Sahlberg, which details the remarkable results obtained when Finland implemented educational reforms, including strengthening the teaching profession.

The second half of the chat, which will be published as Episode 7 in January, used these parallels from other fields and Finland to address Kate’s specific question of how do we get from here to there? Stay tuned!

What’s your perspective on ‘occupation’ vs. ‘profession’? What questions or comments do you have for Teri and Stacie? What feedback do you have on the Policy [M]atters series? Share them in the comments section below.

Dr. Teri Talan is the Michael W. Louis Chair at the McCormick Center and Professor of Early Childhood Education at National Louis University. She is co-author of the Program Administration ScaleBusiness Administration Scale for Family Child CareEscala de Evaluación de la Administración de Negocios, and Who’s Caring for the Kids? The Status of the Early Childhood Workforce in Illinois.

A recognized leader and author in early childhood education, Stacie Goffin has led change initiatives spanning higher education, local, state, and national organizations; organizational development; and advocacy, resulting in change for systems, policy, and practice. Stacie is a member of the McCormick Center’s Advisory Board and is a frequent presenter at the McCormick Center’s Leadership Connections national conference.
Stacie has authored several books, including: Professionalizing Early Childhood Education As a Field of Practice: A Guide to the Next Era, Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession,and Ready or Not: Leadership Choices in Early Care and Education, which was co-authored Valora Washington.




VOICEOVER: Welcome to Policy [M]atters episode 6. Policy [M]atters is a video chat series between Teri Talan of the McCormick Center and a guest author an early childhood policy.

The chats take place and are distributed on a quarterly basis. Our guest author for the next four episodes is authors Stacie Goffin.

In episode six, Stacie and Teri discuss the difference between a profession and an occupation and why it matters.

TERI: Good morning, everyone welcome to our second episode in the Policy [M]atters chat for this year, with Stacie Goffin and myself.

This will be a continuation of the conversation we started in our first episode. We had some good questions that were posed by a couple of our listeners.

The first question that we’re going to address has to do with this idea of what’s the difference between an occupation and a profession?

So as we think about professionalizing the field of early childhood education, what does that actually mean and what do we have to do to get from the occupation of being an early childhood practitioner, or teacher, or leader to an early childhood professional?

So I’m gonna throw that question right out there for Stacie and ask if you have some thoughts you’d like to share with us.

STACIE: Good morning, Teri,  and everybody else. Welcome back.

One of the key things we have to keep in mind is that we use the word professional a lot. And not just in the early childhood education, but writ large. That it’s a term that we use very loosely and generally when we use the word “professional,” we are talking about someone who brings competence to their work.

Sometimes it might have to do with their appearance and that they look professional in terms of how they are dressed. Sometimes it has to do with some basic skills like arriving to work on time, completing projects in a timely manner.  So the difference between an occupation and a profession I think is to make a distinction between “professional,” as an adjective and “profession,” as a noun.

So when we’re talking about an occupation, we are talking about market-driven work, and that people can enter and leave that occupation at will, and not necessarily have any prior prerequisites in terms of their preparation, or any particular kinds of ethical demands that are placed upon them in terms of their practice.

And so in that context many individuals practice. And so in that context many individuals And they in this instance, what the degree does for them, of course, is to give them knowledge and skills that’s going to allow them to be more competent. In a market-driven world they are also being made more competitive.

In contrast, a profession is actually an organized system of preparation, and practice, and accountability, and in fact, there are expectations that are really obligations in terms of the preparation that you need to have prior to being able to enter into the profession and to be able to practice. And there are additional expectations that come with that preparation around ethical obligations. And, you have a responsibility, not only to each other, those of us who are would be part of that profession, but also to, in our instance, the children and families that we serve.

TERI:  So then the focus of the question though is how do you get from one to the other? Because clearly we are a market-driven field, so what do we do in order to move from
ccupation to profession?

I would just say one starter has to do with having a really strong research base about what the about what the in the profession. Which I think we now have over the last year or so.

There’s been an enormous response to the IOM report, “Transforming the Workforce.” So I think that what that report has done is create a deep research base as to what those competencies are for early childhood professionals. What it hasn’t done is tell us how we get from recognition as an occupation to a profession.

STACIE: So I’m wondering at this point of a distinction between certifications from the Department of Ed and professional licensure might be distinguished and helpful.

Because many might suggest that what we want to do then is to invite everyone in the field to be certified, as is the case for currently some pre-K, and but certainly for k-12 teachers. And when you think about it what a Department of Ed offers, that its distinctive from a profession… So again, this is not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just laying out kind of the landscape for our investigation… is it’s an employer-sponsored certification.

So for better for worse, it has to some extent added to the fragmentation of our field. Because it only implies to employees, if you will, within the context of a public school setting, sometimes maybe, charter sometimes maybe private schools. But it is exclusive of some of the other sectors in the field.

TERI:  I’m not sure this is exactly what you’re saying, but this is where your comments take my mind Stacie, and that is I started thinking about whether teaching, as we think of it, in the k-12 world, meets our standard of a profession. Because how self-regulating is it?

It fits more into what you’re describing if we move in a direction of all early childhood teachers being licensed, or having a professional license, and being qualified to teach in a public school or publicly funded pre-k program, are we just adding the early childhood years to perhaps a less than professional view of teaching in our k-12 world?

STACIE: So I think increasingly there are many in the k-12 world, we haven’t gotten to the point yet where we say pre-K-12, right? But in the k-12 world, there are many who are suggesting that it is necessary for teachers to begin to reclaim ownership of their practice.

So in essence, or in fact, no teachers would not be considered professions, as defined. And in part, I think we can look at what the whiplash that k-12 education has been experiencing in the last several years is one example of not having and being in the dictation that comes to them about what they should do and practice, regardless of whether or not it matches what their knowledge base suggests to them ought to be.

It is not self-governing so the governance doesn’t come from teaching, and a union is different from a professional self-governance. It comes from the Department of Ed, and most specifically typically from a Board of Education. And those individuals do not always have a knowledge base that might suggest that they are able to really assess the extent to which the preparation that’s being required and the competencies that have been identified are the ones they would align with the seal’s best practice.

TERI: So I have to say this was like a huge AHA for me when I had this thought. Because I think to many people the idea of professionalizing early childhood is linking it more closely to the world of elementary and secondary education teaching, and viewing that as professional practice.

But it’s almost revolutionary to think that early childhood education might itself as a profession, more like medicine. I think that this word, “professionalization,” and professionalizing our field still means different things to different people.

I don’t know that we’ve really had that conversation about what it would look like to truly be a profession as opposed to being just a better paid, better regulated, higher standards kind of workforce.

STACIE: Let me build on that in particular, because your background includes the fact that you’re a lawyer. So my understanding of the field of law is that when you are degreed, you are a lawyer when you are licensed you are an attorney.

And so there’s actually a distinction in the terminology that differentiates individuals who perhaps have earned the degree, in the content, but have not necessarily gone through that next step to be licensed to practice. But as an attorney or then, I think a nurse is a really easy example for all, maybe easier for folks to identify with.

The focus is on the individual competence. And that’s where going to scale comes from. It’s not based upon the program. So again, when you think about k-12, it’s a programmatic certification, it’s tied to the funding that k-12 receives.

A nurse, this is true for attorneys and other professionals as well, but that a nurse can practice in hospice, home care, a physician’s office, neonatal care, and we can keep going into the variety of spaces, in which a nurse can practice, if he or she is licensed as an RN to practice.

So it’s not based upon the program. It’s not based upon the funding stream, it’s based upon the individual competency and the fact that those competencies have been recognized by the state in terms of licensure. And that’s a really important distinction and paradigm shift for us if we were to move in this direction.

TERI:  So the idea of licensure we need to separate. Licensure isn’t necessarily what we think of in terms of what public school teachers have. I think you’re meaning licensure in a different way like how social workers are licensed, how attorneys are licensed, nurses are licensed, counselors are now licensed.

I think counseling is an interesting example because there are so many people who are in the helping professions, who think of themselves as counselors but they have created a terminology and a particular licensure exam that sets people apart. And only when you meet those qualifications both through higher education that through a licensing exam, can you call yourself a licensed counselor.

STACIE:  So you cannot you cannot have an RN after your name, you can’t have like for an architect, you can’t call yourself an architect. It’s a protected term. Unless you’re actually licensed to practice.

TERI: Stacie, I’m very influenced at the moment by a study group that I’m participating in here at National Louis having to do with “Finnish Lessons,” the book about the system of public education in Finland.

One of the things that I was reading about is how the term “preschool teacher” actually requires… it has a very specific meaning. It means that you’ve had a five-year program and a master’s degree in early childhood education. And that term can only be used by those folks who have achieved that level of education. And I don’t know whether there’s a licensure exam, but they have taken that term and only those that meet these qualifications can use that language.

Back to your point about licensure, and the determination of what those competencies are and what such licensure qualifications would entail, should be designed and developed and monitored by those in the field themselves.

STACIE: And you just helped do a great job in terms of this conversation of closing the loop when we were talking about being self-defining and self-governing.

And I would add based upon what you were just saying, so using the Finnish example, there’s a clarity regarding the scope of practice.

So when you look at, now I’m going to look at the medicine, medical profession, where you have different roles that physicians can play. And as many of us have experience if you go to your internist. as a family physician, you might enter into a conversation where he or she suggests that you may need to see a specialist. And that’s because you have stepped outside of the internist scope of license, scope of practice. And therefore you’re referred to someone else.

And so that sets important parameters that you don’t step outside of your competencies. So that’s the k-12 again,  there are many examples where a principal could take you know an eighth-grade or fourth-grade teacher and put that individual into a kindergarten classroom. Within the context of a profession that would be fine.

If in the context of thinking that what a kindergarten teacher needs to know and be able to do is maybe distinctive from what an eighth-grade teacher needs to know and be able to do, you would not put that Kindergarten teacher in an eighth-grade classroom, nor the reverse.

So I also think one of the conversations we have the opportunity to explore or to engage in, is do we have specialties within early childhood education? So again every profession has a shared common knowledge base, an MD is an MD, and RN is an RN, but then they also have differentiated scopes of practice where there are additional knowledge and clinical practice that’s required in terms of practicum and experiences prior to being able to be licensed as that specialty.

VOICEOVER: In the second half of this chat Stacie and Teri talked about how the field can get from occupation to profession. We’ll publish that conversation in January as episode 7.

In the meantime what questions or comments do you have for Stacy and Teri? What feedback do you have on the Policy [M]atters series? Tell us in the comment section below. Until next time!