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The Myth of “They”

The life of a self-authoring educator can be pretty lonely. Self-authors forge their own pathways through existing systems by creating community with trusted colleagues, seeking formal and informal coaching, and choosing their own learning content. As they engage in learning outside what is mandatory and provided, they can become isolated from their colleagues. When self-authors find their own way, it is easy to fall into a common trap: believing the myth of “they.”

“They” is everyone else, all the people who are NOT self-authoring and hold back the self-authors of the world. “They” are annoying at best, and oppressive or harmful at worst. For me, sometimes “they” shows up as the voice of a particular strain of my inner critic, when I am reflecting an aspect of the self-authoring educator. For example, I might be considering questioning a policy decision or expressing my point of view as a parent at a meeting held by the school district where I work. “They” want me to “act professionally” by staying silent, but internally I believe the most professional thing to do is speak up.

When was the last time you really thought about what professionalism means to you? We use the word a lot, but usually when someone is being accused of being unprofessional. It is “unprofessional” to arrive late, wear certain clothes or hair styles, or speak in certain ways. It is “unprofessional” to show emotion in certain settings or speak up when you disagree with something. The word feels like a weapon, used to minimize the dignity and emotions of highly skilled workers in a very human profession such as education. When we hear “unprofessional” from a colleague or supervisor, we tend to question our behavior when perhaps we should be examining the word itself, how it is being used, and how it is situationally aligned with our core values. We also need to consider, individually and collectively, when, how, and to whom and by whom the word “unprofessional” is being used.

Take a moment to look at the photos in the ongoing Our Kind of People campaign by artist and educator Bayeté Ross Smith. Then consider your initial reaction to the photos. Which photos show people who appear to look “professional”? What might management at your workplace or school deem as looking “unprofessional”?

I’ve long felt the heavy weight of the word as an oppressive tool to keep me from fully expressing my passion as an educator, but then I started to see articles like this one on the bias of professionalism standards and realized this is also a tool of White supremacy culture. In The Racial Healing Handbook, Anneliese A. Singh refers to the idea that “the notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant/White culture are ideal” as “pathologizing cultural values/communication styles,” a form of workplace microaggression.

In The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards, Aysa Gray reminds us that “Professionalism has become coded language for white favoritism in workplace practices that more often than not privilege the values of white and Western employees and leave behind people of color.” Professionalism is a standard category on the reference forms included with most job applications. It is also used to evaluate teacher and education leaders, usually something like this item from the state of Virginia Teacher Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria:

Standard 7. Professionalism - The teacher demonstrates a commitment to professional ethics, collaborates and communicates appropriately, and takes responsibility for personal professional growth that results in the enhancement of student learning.

This catch-all category can be used as a weapon to minimize the otherwise excellent work of an employee. How many of us have been accused by a supervisor of having an “emotional” reaction to a policy? I know I have, usually when I speak out against a policy that challenges my personal ethics. Is that communicating “inappropriately”? If so, who decides what “appropriate” means? Who defines “professional ethics”? Is it the individual or the organization? Is it acceptable for a teacher to seek professional growth outside of what is provided by the district or is that considered “unprofessional”?

How “they” define professionalism does not jive with my own understanding of the word. I jotted the list below in my notebook during a particularly oppressive meeting recently.

“They” say professionalism is…

I say professionalism is…

Following the rules

Ensuring the rules match the intended outcome

Following “the chain of command”

Sharing urgent insights with the stakeholder most likely to take action, demonstrating the reciprocal relationship of accountability between stakeholders

Staying in your “lane”

Contributing and acknowledging multiple perspectives and insights to ensure robust policies, decisions, and results

Moving up the ladder

Finding my best “fit” as an educator, based on my life and passions

Don’t quit your day job

Evaluating the true cost of a job, in terms of money but also in terms of toll on my personal and professional well-being

Deeming certain decisions “above my pay grade”

Accepting responsibility for what I see, hear, and know and communicating concerns to supervisors appropriately, with openness and curiosity about other viewpoints

Not speaking publicly about organizational policies/decisions

Using my voice on a variety of platforms to affect change, holding my organization accountable for its stated core values, and proposing productive solutions

Keeping personal and professional separate

Showing up as my whole self at home and at work

Modeling a strong “work ethic”

​Demonstrating what it means to stand in my values, even when it is inconvenient or potentially uncomfortable for me personally or professionally

Avoiding making yourself or others uncomfortable at meetings and during conversations

Valuing discomfort as a physical and emotional signal that something is worth pursuing because that is how people learn

If I had the authority to rewrite how we evaluate educators on their professionalism, my definition would look like more like this example, from The Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model:

My favorite phrase? “When asked…”

I am not sure “they” are ready to update the way educators are evaluated to reflect these ideas, and it would be irresponsible for me to think my perspective on professionalism in my table above is universal. But I do know this:

  • “They” does not exist.

  • There is no “they.”

  • I am “they.”

  • You are “they.”

  • We are “they.”

Professional educators can redefine professionalism. It is our right and our responsibility to do so. Otherwise, we allow a faceless system and organizational culture to define professionalism for us.

What are some items on your professionalism list? If you comment below, I’ll add your ideas to this post to demonstrate elements of our collective ideas of professionalism so “they” becomes “us.”


Meghan Raftery
Meghan Raftery
Nov 26, 2022

This is an important article about "professionalism" outside of education. This line in particular struck me: "Professionalism was based on the notion that one withstood microaggressions and bias with grace and lightheartedness."


Meghan Raftery
Meghan Raftery
Nov 11, 2022

A funny take on this concept, shared by Edjacent Designer Sebrina via Adam Grant on Twitter:


LouAnne Metzger
LouAnne Metzger
Oct 31, 2022

I love this blog post! It is jam packed with not only our moral imperative, but ways to expand our understanding of how we (white folks in leadership) have been a part of the problem and not the solution.

Meghan Raftery
Meghan Raftery
Oct 31, 2022
Replying to

I can certainly recall sometimes where I was more THEY than ME!


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