The Making of a Professional: Where and When to Start
Most of us have a sense of which professionals are impressive—the astute and reliable physician; the fair-minded journalist who will only publish a story after thorough research; the empathetic professor who keeps up with the latest findings in her field. But where do these individuals come from? How are they formed?
While at one time, certain adult roles may have been passed down or inherited, we no longer think of queens or knights or jesters as professionals. However, one can discern analogies: several generations of doctors or lawyers in a family; families deeply involved in teaching; children growing up in a doctor or teacher family observing the behaviors, habits, and skills of the older generation and in many cases emulating the role models. Less frequently, older professionals may spot promising young persons and encourage a mentoring relationship. This can happen when an experienced teacher spots an adolescent who shows interest and ability in teaching peers; or when a high school debater comes to the attention of a veteran lawyer. Early signs of professionalism (we might call it “pre-professionalism”) are found in a youngster who understands the positive missions of their school, who joins into those missions, and who eventually takes a leading (if not leadership) role in the achievement of those missions.
This abstract characterization of “pre-professionalism” cries out for concrete specifics. And indeed, at every school, such specifics reliably abound. What happens when a new child comes to school and is unfamiliar with the norms? How is an incident of cheating handled? How does the school community react when there is a tragedy in the family of one of the students, or, indeed, when harsh weather or a fire damages a home, a business, or a church in the neighborhood? Or even an institution that is not much admired? And when there are epochal political events in the larger society, are these discussed in school and are reasonable (or even unreasonable) actions considered and carried out?
Whatever the prompt, some students will instinctively behave constructively and, alas, some students will be by-standers or even trouble makers. Here the role of the adults—both those in school and those parents and neighbors who are part of the broader school family—is salient. As is often quipped with respect to parents, “Children don’t listen to what parents say, but they invariably notice what their parents do.” And equally important—sometimes, more important—is what the older children, the admired role models, do (or don’t do).
In this context, negative role models must also be considered. Sometimes, particularly if they are attractive in one way or another, such seductive role models can encourage immature or even damaging emulations. However, as we learned in our own study of excellent professionals, young persons also gain lessons from those whom they do not admire. Frequently, these professionals told us of anti-mentors, tormentors, and negative role models who taught them exactly what they did not want to do and how they did not want to be.
Recently, it has become fashionable to say, “One should never waste a crisis.” Perhaps there’s an ounce of truth in this expression, but it would be foolish—in fact “stupid”—for educators to wait until an actual crisis erupts. Here is where simulations, games, dramatic enactments, and role play can be timely. From the time they enter school, young people should be aware of problems and conundra that may arise, the range of possible responses, and which responses are likely to be effective, which not, and why. Such rehearsals, if carried out with seriousness, can be of considerable help in the formation of good young people.
And of course, the explicit curriculum is as important as the hidden curriculum. Whether it is in humanistic subjects, like history or literature, or in more scientifically oriented subjects, like biology or physics, students should be alerted to the ethical dilemmas that can arise, how they have been dealt with (or swept under the rug), and what might or should have been done.
But these class exercises gain efficacy when they are reflected in the behaviors and attitudes of teachers and administrators every day, and they lose all power and credibility if the lessons from “upstanders” in history or literature are undermined by the decisions and actions of leaders in one’s midst.
There is a long distance from the milieu of middle and high school and the atmosphere of our hospitals, law offices, and university campuses—and thus plenty of time either to further develop one’s professional muscles or, less happily, to see them atrophy. And the values learned at home (and in religious institutions) are certainly formative. But I would wager that in many cases, when we admire a professional, we are looking at behaviors and thought patterns that were launched in school, well before youngsters even knew the word “professional.”