Rocking Out In One Day Magazine
(I kinda wanted to complain that none of the featured essays on this topic were penned by current classroom teachers, but then I realized I was supposed to fill that particular quota, and pulled a little bait-and-switch on the One Day folks. My b., yo).
If “Profession” Is the Butterfly, We Are the Larva
Teaching is not a profession. It is a never-ending entry-level vocation, divorced from foundational understandings of training, accountability, and advancement. If we are to enact meaningful reform, we must rescue teaching from its status as vocation and volunteerism, and recast it as a profession of rigor, creativity, and unlimited impact.
It is not uncommon to hear teachers dismiss their credentialing programs as useless and ineffective. You’ve never heard a doctor make this statement. Doctors, pilots, and plumbers are not expected, as teachers are, to learn their profession on the run, by trial-and-error, by searching for ideas on the Internet, or by attending disparate workshops. Teacher preparation is trapped in a dichotomy of insufficiency. Traditional route programs train teachers on generic skill sets insufficient for the incredible language, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity found within urban classrooms. Yet, alternative route programs require prohibitive amounts of on-the-job learning that is impractical and frequently ineffective. Neither approach effectively prepares career teachers for the rigors of high-need urban classrooms.
We need a third way, one built upon the medical residency model, combining training in highly specialized skills with the time needed to fully merge theory and praxis. All prospective urban educators need time to learn from and work with a proven mentor, develop their teaching in meaningful and accountable ways, and engage in coursework that acknowledges and reflects the differences between teaching in Marin and teaching in West Oakland. These Resident teachers would work for an entire academic year with an Attending teacher, participating in the full range of professional responsibilities from the first day of school, eventually taking ownership of all aspects of complete units of study.
This provides a far more authentic model of student teaching, rescuing it from unaccountable summer school and end-of-the-year contexts. It allows Resident teachers the most complete and accurate training possible, one that omits no aspect of the job, and provides the most extensive arena for skill development. Perhaps most importantly, it allows Residents to learn first-hand from a proven Attending teacher, and see the application of effective teaching within the exact context the Resident teachers will one day work.
Evaluation and accountability
Teaching is, at its core, a simple and direct act. Here are kids, a room, and some tools: At the end of the school day, what is the increase in knowledge, the sharpness of analysis, and the refinement of skill? What can the students do and how much better can they do it now? As a teacher, what did you do here, exactly?
Our profession continues to struggle with this essential understanding of our work, failing to connect compensation or even continued employment to educator effectiveness. We must institute evaluation measures that value outputs over inputs. We must develop merit pay and accountability systems that make improvement a professional imperative rather than an act of personal pride. We must invest site administration with the power to hire the teachers they want and fire those they don’t. Until then, we will continue to function less like a profession, and more like rec-league T-ball, where everyone gets to swing but no one keeps score.
Teaching suffers from a lack of career development and meaningful acknowledgement of success and accomplishment. To rectify this, we need promotions for teachers that do not require them to stop being teachers. Teachers with the ability to guide peers, develop instructional models, or assume site-based leadership must be offered these opportunities in conjunction with a reduced, but continuing, classroom role.
What limitations – beyond inertia – prevent the creation of the teacher/ vice-principal, the teacher/ curriculum designer, the teacher/ data analyst? Such hybrid roles exist in small, isolated numbers, but more often than not, the assumption of greater leadership responsibilities exists as something added-on to existing teaching responsibilities. This limits overall effectiveness, and encourages martyrdom and burnout, forcing teacher-leaders to either dramatically increase their professional responsibilities or make an inauthentic choice between the classroom and the front office. By seeking the creation of diverse and varied teaching positions, we expand the scope of professional development and advancement, keep talented leaders working directly with kids, and begin to address the problematic issue of mid-career teacher retention.
The achievement gap can only be closed by professionalizing teaching, and eliminating the educator achievement gap—that distance between the teachers we are, and the teachers our students need us to be.