Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Make Us All Great

Greatness is a relative term and there is a growing effort focused on making the teachers we have across this country better. But there's a simple solution. Hire more crappy teachers and voila. That will effectively increase the relative quality of those currently employed. Obviously that was a joke but so are some of the suggestions currently gaining favor.

Here's a serious one, actually pay educators for what they do. One way to do that would be to pay higher ups less. Keep the money in the schools with the people who work with kids in them, nowhere else. Don't allow yourself to be naive to the degree that you fail to recognize how influential companies are slowly leeching money away from actual instruction in schools and into management and testing. Let's use that money to do what was suggested in a bad 2008 Time Article reward teachers so that "the most competent, caring and compelling—remain in a profession known for low pay, low status and soul-crushing bureaucracy". If you use student scores and similar measures to rank us some of us are going to be bad. If you must tie this information in use it appropriately and rate, do not rank. Similarly be very careful about how you choose to reward educators. It is pretty important. Why not increase teacher pay across the board?

Great teachers know their subject, they communicate well, they inspire and connect with young people, they motivate, they understand kids and their emotional needs, they have the intangibles, they are creative, dependable, organized, work hard, are patient and resilient(My English teacher would run out of red ink on that sentence). Good luck getting all that from everyone. As some yolk the momentum for change in campaign season the finger can get pointed at teacher preparation. In other professions it seems what you did in college matters, but it seems OK to have graduated and underperformed before you got a job. Each year you work what you did and learned before you were hired matters less. Not so in education. Truth is the best preparation for teaching is actually teaching, the other stuff helps but learning about teaching and actually teaching are very different. Why does this even get pointed out as a big reason our students under-perform? Many kids I know only excel when their performance affects others, when it really maters. Teachers can be much the same. Imagine 25 faces staring back at you wondering what is about to happen when you don't know either. That would suck huh? Thus it'd be great to stop implying what you learned in college makes you a great teacher.

My favorite analogy came from Katy Farber who wrote Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus . She said that teaching is like treading water and then being handed more and more bricks. I feel that way almost daily. The more bricks we are handed, the less great we are. To offset the increasing demands some propose raising pay but that won't make the day any longer.

Many efforts to increase pay require that increase be tied to student performance on standardized tests(see previous post). Some are calling for experience to play a reduced role compensation or even be removed all together. Would that approach make sense for doctors, pilots, police officers, or any other job? News flash: EXPERIENCE MATTERS IN TEACHING. Tenure allows teachers to take risks and improve. To have piece of mind that they will have a job and focus on developing their craft free of the burdens of probationary supervision. Opponents of tenure argue it serves to keep bad teachers around but there are far more pros to cons.

Other ways to make us all great are to allow and protect the time teachers need for effective and meaningful collaboration. Squeezing it in the schedule here and there with a shoehorn doesn't cut it. That will allow for relevant sharing of resources and ideas along with professional development among peers so they can actually support each other. This enables them to successfully navigate the maelstrom of public education. Collaboration instead of competition.

Force everyone who wants input on educational decisions to sub in schools so they'll gain understanding on how tough this job can be when working with unmotivated or disrespectful kids.

Actually go back to where the kid was the one being held accountable. The are you working to engage johnny and what have you done to reach this kid stuff goes away when a kid acts like an idiot.

Respect the profession of teaching. Foster more autonomy and individual control, allow for advancement and leadership without leaving teaching. Excellence suffers when pressures from efficiency and output are applied to the classroom.

Simplify things. Teachers need time built into the day to settle the chaos. That would allow them to model a much calmer nature and be more understanding. Schedules need to be constructed in a way to allow this. Having full time subs would be a classic example of ways to help teachers be great with simplicity.

Recognize the limitations on digital and online learning, use it to supplement instruction, not just replace it. It has a growing and important role but has limits. Just as virtual human exchanges are useful but fall short of sitting down face to face. One of the lessons of John Henry is that technology is not always better. So much of what teachers do are those more subtle things or actions that have a formative impact of kids. Online classes should maintain similar student teacher ratios to brick and mortar learning. Kids can learn content from a book or a computer but the dynamic between a teacher and student can never be replicated virtually, period.

Keep teaching authentic not out of the box top down. Let teachers use their passion to instruct and do not extinguish that trait with minutia of pupil management.

Understand that teaching is a struggle. Every day is different and presents its own unique challenges. Support teachers accordingly.

Alleviate the student load to a level that allows more one on one attention and focus. This goes for all educators, teachers, counselors on down the list.

Just do what Jeb suggests...I mean he is obviously an education expert. No don't...the seismic shift referenced on that link will be good teachers leaving the job.

Try building teachers up instead of tearing the profession down. It is a human endeavor and the human spirit can accomplish some pretty amazing things when it is cut loose and kept healthy. Ask what they need and work to get it to them. Don't give them stuff then convince them to use it.

Whatever paths chosen locally, statewide and federally to encourage greatness among teachers they should be carefully chosen and well thought out to help us be great, or at least allow us to show that we are when allowed to be.
Just don't hand me more bricks.

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