Give Them a Place To Go
How can our nation improve its educational outcomes? According to a New York Times op-ed piece (8/22/13) by Charles Blow, educational leaders and reformers agree that “attracting, supporting, and keeping the best teachers and investing in their development” is one important strategy to employee. Unfortunately, Blow’s commentary does little to shed light on how schools will attract, support, keep, and develop the “best” teachers.
As a teacher who has worked within public elementary schools for almost twenty-five years, I have met and come to know teachers who are the “best.” Deeply knowledgeable about theory and content, reflective about their teaching, and purposeful and caring in their practices, these teachers typically stay after school to plan lessons, institute new programs and instructional techniques, talk with colleagues about what works in others classrooms, and come to workshops armed with insightful questions and comments. In a word, they are “go-getters.” The end result is that, year after year, their students achieve academic success and growth – lots of it.
But as the years have gone by, I have found that many of these go-getters are more likely than ever to express frustration about their work situations. They tell me they want to quit. They say, “If they’d only let me teach, I’d feel so much better.” They come up to me at the end of workshops and exclaim, “Let’s start our own school!” Frustration arises when expert teachers cannot teach using methods and materials they know to be effective, cannot implement the instructional practices they have striven to perfect, and cannot use their wisdom, knowledge, and enthusiasm to inform their educational world.
The comment “if they’d only let me teach” is especially telling. Aside from the occasional coach, coordinator, or consultant, there are but two tracks of employment in most elementary schools: teacher and administrator. When this duality becomes polarized, problems develop and teachers find themselves unable to teach in satisfying and effective ways. Administrators come to see “leadership” as telling others what to do, dictating what schedule to follow, and prescribing which instructional programs and methods to use. Meanwhile, teachers come to see working within the system as an exercise in “keeping my mouth shut, my head down, and my door closed.” Unions are also culpable in the perpetuation of the two-track system. While charter schools often emphasize the human resource end of the business, using progressive models for organizing and paying staff, unions cling to the belief that every member should receive exactly the same thing, perpetuating the idea that solidarity is synonymous with uniformity.
Two-track organization is damaging in other ways. It may drive away lifelong learners who are interested in opportunity and exploration. Why would a creative and curious go-getter want to take a job and stay in a system that provides only two job possibilities (teacher or administrator), little opportunity for exploration, experimentation, or innovation, and few prospects for advancement in status or responsibility?
As a way of supporting and keeping the best elementary school teachers, I propose that schools begin to pay closer attention to their human resources. More specifically, I suggest they create a much wider variety of places for their go-getters to go. Here’s why and how.
Because a two-track system doesn’t maximize the skill set of master teachers or afford them enough opportunity and freedom, and because it keeps developing teachers from fully arriving at masterful teaching, schools should create models of employment that are teacher-centered, as well as varied and dynamic. Like the students they teach, teachers are learners. So why not apply learning theory to the design of staff organization models? For example, if we believe schools should be student-centered, we should make them teacher-centered as well. And if we truly believe that utilizing the oft-cited zone of proximal development is best practice for teaching young learners, then it should be used in the support and development of older learners. Notice that I didn’t call us old learners!
I suggest starting with a continuum of professional designations. While job titles already exist (coordinator and department chair come to mind) schools need to think more broadly. So let’s look to other professions for ideas. The most logical one is higher education. Applying a university’s ascending hierarchy of professorship to elementary education leads to this possibility:
• Classroom instructor
• Associate teacher
• Distinguished Teacher of Literacy
• Emeritus Teacher of Instruction and Learning
Next, create job descriptions that clearly define the duties, responsibilities, and pay scales of each designation. For this schools might look to nursing. Like teaching, nursing demands a high degree of training, lots of theoretical knowledge in service to practical implementation, and skill in caring for people. Unlike teaching, nursing offers three clearly defined levels of “being a nurse.” One level is the licensed practical nurse (LPN), a designation that demands less of the worker in terms of training, knowledge and responsibility. Because the position demands less, pay and status are less. Then there is the registered nurse (RN). Registered nurses must have a four-year degree. This allows them to collaborate with physicians and other nurses. With the designation of RN comes additional pay and status. Finally, there is the advanced practice nurse or APN. These highly trained and skilled nurses perform duties previously exclusive to physicians, such as administering anesthesia, delivering babies, and prescribing medication.
Applying this ascending hierarchy to elementary education leads to another possibility:
• Licensed practical teacher (LPT)
• Registered teacher (RT)
• Advanced practical teacher (APT)
In this model, LPTs might run programs that require a high degree of fidelity and little lesson planning, programs such as SRA Corrective Reading. Or LPTs might be entry-level teachers who are required to submit weekly lesson plans. Rules and regulations on an LPT would be tighter and responsibility for decision-making would be less, as would the pay. With additional training and evidence of effectiveness, a teacher could move on to an RT license. This license would bring more responsibility, pay, freedom, and status. You get the idea.
Time to perform leadership, coordination, and administrative functions would be built into the definition of each job title. Most importantly, titles demanding varying degrees of ability and commitment would not be tied exclusively to seniority or advanced degrees, but rather to exhibited competence, instructional achievement (student growth), and the teacher’s explicitly stated request for greater career autonomy, opportunity, and responsibility.
Other designations are possible – sergeant teacher, lieutenant teacher, major teacher, and colonel teacher might be interesting – but the terms are beside the point. The point is for systems to create opportunities so that go-getter teachers stay in the classroom yet experience career advancement and a sense of “getting somewhere.” Systems can develop and support those who want to excel at classroom teaching by giving them exciting, intellectual, and challenging places to go. Once the destinations are in place, all a school system needs to do is support teachers as each rises to his or her best level of employment. And the ones who do go on to higher levels, the best teachers in the school, will be much more likely to stay there.
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I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.