Professionalism: a deep dive
Whenever my school has a non-uniform day a student will ask me in the days preceding what I intend to wear.
I then reveal, much to their horror (and my own amusement), something they hadn’t considered – that my ensemble of black leather shoes, woollen blazer and polyester tie, are not a uniform, but in actual fact my own clothes.
It’s like that episode of The Simpsons when Krusty the Clown announces to Bart: ‘Hey kid, this ain’t make-up!’
But the student does have a point. Are these clothes really mine? Just because I once tried them on in a Marks & Spencer changing room, doesn’t really mean I chose them to be my so-called ‘work clothes’.
So what compels me to wear shoes, a blazer and tie to work? Why not a t-shirt and trainers? Or Angel Delight? Is it just because my school’s code of conduct asks for ‘smart business attire’? Or, perhaps, it’s the habit of professionalism?
What is professionalism?
When I was a child there was a rule in our house about how to greet my father when he got home from work. My sisters and I were taught that under no circumstance were we to make demands of him until after he had disappeared upstairs to change out of his work clothes. Only now, as an adult, do I fully understand why this might have been.
The man who came through the door each night was not my father. He looked identical, but that suited man carrying a briefcase was cold and quiet.
Soon, however, he’d stroll down the stairs in faded jeans and a polo shirt, a grin on his face and, a few minutes later, a gin and tonic in his hand. Only then was he Dad.
When thinking about good habits today, we consider them to be a usual way of behaving, as in “good eating habits”. But in its oldest sense, habit originally meant “clothing” and then progressed to mean “clothing for a particular profession or purpose”.
When my father got home from work he had to shrug off that outer shell; the professional clothing, but also the professional habit.
The habit of professionalism, then, is not so much business attire as it is one of those old-fashioned diving suits from the 19th Century; a sturdy enclosure that allows us to safely navigate professional life.
Why is it so important?
In one sense, professionalism encourages us to act when we would much rather not: to do the planning or marking when everything else seems more interesting; to step back from the keyboard before clicking send; to thank others for their feedback, even when it leaves us feeling sore; to not always have the last word.
It helps us to grin and bear it. To step out into the cold November rain and toil under a school ethos that might not entirely be our own.
But in another sense, it stops us from being our truest selves. School is so often a place where we must hold our tongues and put on a show of reverence for those we may dislike on a personal level.
Professionalism helps us to recognise when it is better to just pretend.
That’s not to say we must be professional always
It is of course healthy to be hauled back to the surface for fresh air in between dives. A lunch break provides refreshment far beyond the nourishment of food and drink – it is a time to pop off the helmet and make the sort of idle chit chat you don’t get to when you’re operating professionally: to speak freely, to gossip, to tease, and to express frustrations behind firmly closed doors. All before taking a few deep breaths and going back in.
I was once told that Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett of The Two Ronnies liked to get into costume as early as possible when rehearsing their comedy sketches. They believed that only once they were in costume could they properly get into character.
I think it should be the same for new teachers too: to get into the habit of being professional as a matter of priority; to quickly put on that diving suit.
For self-preservation, if nothing else.