The Professional Puzzle Pieces

Image #1: What do you see? A Professional?

According to the Oxford Language Dictionary, the word professional means, a person engaged or qualified in a profession. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines professional as meaning, relating to work that needs specialist training and having the type of job that is respected because it involves a high level of education and training.

What does professional mean to you?

The reason I am investigating the meaning of professional is because of an activity I participated in this week. We were asked to imagine Higher Education as something different to what we have now. We discussed social issues such as generational poverty and lack of higher education access for care leavers or young people from a more deprived background (which now includes the upper working classes by the way; working poverty JRF). Tasked with creating an image of a new University education, that resembled our desire for a more person-centered approach to higher education instead of the consumer centered approach, which we currently experience every day, on many campuses across the world. Could the professional expectations of employers and (arguably) paying students be any different? Could couches replace lecture hall benches? Can teaching occur in school staff rooms or at kitchen counters? Does it make a blind bit of difference what trousers your tutor chooses that morning?

I have tested the system in which we currently live and I believe that whilst Covid-19 has given us all a kick, where it is needed, we will still need another 50 years before any major change occurs; too late for me but maybe not too late for my grandchildren. If I declare on my application that I have a disability, I have never been offered an interview. If I attend an interview on my wheels, I have never been offered a post. However, if I attend on my feet I have received an offer 100% of the time. That is the world we live in. Do I somehow look less professional if I have a walking stick, or wheels? Possibly. However, we are now working in a world where only your head and shoulders are ever visible; the 2020 lock down will forever be my friend. The world is my oyster now that Zoom is my primary form of communication. Only my brain is on show; only my brain is employed.

How do we move towards the tail end of the HE juggernaut just enough for the momentum of our nudge, to turn it around, send it into a spin leaving it upside down; contents sprawled across three lanes of oncoming traffic. What would our newly imagined University look like? Relaxed? Inclusive? Global? Networked? Managed from a living room or attic?

Image #2 Photo by on
Is taking your shoes off during a board meeting unprofessional?

My new University image, my Utopian picture, it is comfortable and accessible and free from doors and curbs and free from the expectation that colleagues will wear formal suits

My new University will have couches and blankets and exude a mixture of confidence and comfort. My University can be accessed by any one in any country

Did the organisation hire the brain or the shoes?

Did you hire my brain or my legs?

Image 3: Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on

Zoom users are able to change the background of their e-call so that when they are in meetings rows of books can be seen by other meeting members. Some scenes are of tropical islands with palm trees blowing in the wind. Other backgrounds include fireplace scenes and plain bock colour.

What exactly does professional mean?

This is a really important question to throw out there for our philosophical colleagues to play with. Personally I dont want to see a tropical background, it is too bright; too ridiculous maybe. I would rather watch fake bookshelves in the background; but that is just me. I realize my hypocrisy; I also believe that anyone should be able to remove their shoes in a meeting should they wish to #hypocrite #contradiction

Image #4 professional or unprofessional
Is image 1 more professional than image 3? Why Yes? or Why No? Do we challenge our assumptions and systemic beliefs? Has Covid-19 offered us an opportunity to challenge our expectations and ideas?
Has exclusively online learning and working provided a much needed ‘reset’ for all of us?

Image #1: If I consider the responses I receive from those around me (in times where we did work in close quarters; piled into small square offices) I know that if I use image 1 on all of my online profiles, that the image resembles my level of professionalism. The expectation on meeting me is that I wear that suit Monday-Saturday, I speak without dropping my T’s and without mentioning that the sandwich shop is ‘upt roard’. My job has taught me to polish my professional image and I know it sells itself in this one image (#1).

The same cannot be said for image 4. However, I wouldn’t label image 4 as unprofessional; maybe just less professional, and only then in the minds of a few. I know there would be some of my co-workers and colleagues thinking I could have done better with my hair (if I want to make a good impression) and my choice of wardrobe could be improved. I may still get the job, however, I may equally be passed over because the person on another screen is wearing a suit and tie.

I ask again, does my choice of hair style or clothing impact my brain, my morals, my ethics or my ability to manage a large department?

If you’re still with me, maybe you have begun to consider how you define professional and what the expectations you have when meeting new people, or working closely with colleagues. Hopefully you are reflecting on your own moral compass, so as to consider exactly what you expect from the professionals in your circles.

Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas

Marie Curie

The nationwide lockdown of 2020 meant that everyone had to work from home (of those who could do so). Colleagues were swiftly trained in the use of video calling through software like Zoom, Collaborate and Teams.

Children were also at home as parents struggled, determined to balance the home school day with 7-8 hours of conference calls. Screens became to biggest headache for occupational health teams and someone somewhere will no doubt sue their employer for medical damages caused by the need to be staring, at close range, to the computer screen.

Cats started to steal the show as they wandered, unawares across keyboards and tantrums were caught off screen but not off audio. Working from home may well be the worst part of the lock down for many.

Is the presence of the cat unprofessional?

Does the child’s tantrum in the background of a high level manager’s board meeting, make their contributions unprofessional?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Maybe it is time that we rethink how we see professionals and how we define roles as being professional (or not). It is no longer so clear cut.

I can teach a class, attend a board meeting, manage my day and engage with my PhD whilst showing only the top of my shoulders and my oh so lovely little round face. You all engage with my brain, my thoughts, ideas and my knowledge without my formal clothes, make-up (or lack of it), my shoes or my heat blanket even coming into the equation.

Its time we rethink our understanding of professionalism, being a professional and acting professional. No-one hires a suit – or at least in 2020 they shouldn’t be

P rofessional means educated mum!
R really son, what makes you think so?
O h, just my teacher and her sums
F unny, that makes you professional then?
E veryone who does their sums will be one!
S hare your sums with me, my son
S houldnt you already know the answers?
I ndeed, of course, Im a professional then!
O nly you work from home in Pyjamas mum
N ot from the neck up, my love 🙂
A nd on camera they cant see your onesie?
L imitations should not measured by
clothing; so professionalism shouldn’t be
Dall’Alba, G., 2009. Learning professional ways of being:
Ambiguities of becoming. Educational
Philosophy and Theory41(1), pp.34-45.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Barack Obama

Image 6: Does professional have two legs and heels?
University for everyone; University for all; University that is accessible and without discrimination

Remember, it is my brain, my knowledge and my experience that is employed and it is that which makes me professional.

Published by Chelle Oldham

Woman; Mother; Wife; Ex; Researcher; Academic; Lecturer; Teacher; School Teacher; University Teacher; Manager; Planner; Swimmer; Artist; Author; Poet; Reader; Editor; Santa; Nurse; Counselor; Disabled; Single; Cook; Cleaner; Supervisor; Administrator;

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