Sunday, May 18, 2014

Please stop appreciating me

This sounds crass and rude, but nothing would please me more than an end to the need for a week long festival of teacher appreciation.

Let's face it.  As a 58-year-old adult with twenty-five years of classroom experience, beginning in 1978, I do not need another piece of cake or pen that says "We love our teachers" to indicate that the work is important. In some ways the recognition is infantilizing.  The small acknowledgements are like tips given to a favorite babysitter.  We are not babysitters.

Meaningful compensation would go much further in underscoring that teacher work is a valued adult profession that benefits everyone.

We know our work is important, even if much of the country does not.  The work is so important that countless hours and dollars have been invested in the improvement of  practice, including a Master's Degree, National Board Certification, and endless work with colleagues in both face-to-face networks like the Northern Virginia Writing Project and virtual networks like the CTQ Collaboratory, Advanced Placement and English Teacher's Companion nings, as well as a host of twitter chats. Additionally, professional reading through magazines and books is a part of a daily reading diet. All of these activities are completed outside of expected work hours.

After having done other private sector work I have a basis of comparison.  Teaching is engaging, demanding, and often physically exhausting, much different from the other roles I've played in advertising, freelance writing, and radio--there I was afforded more time to do less demanding work, more freedom to set a schedule, and far less oversight.

Teaching is also vastly underpaid, particularly here in Virginia where we rank 30th in the nation for teacher compensation. (But a mere  $10,000 away from the lowest ranking state).   Returning to teaching after a part-time hiatus in advertising while raising three children, I was stunned by the amount of intellectual work teachers give away every day.  In advertising, we charged $70 an hour for much of the same work performed with students and parents multiple times in a day: proofreading, writing, creating powerpoint presentations and agendas, writing scripts, letters to clients...

In spite of having worked with literally thousands of students, expertise in delivering content to sometimes distracted, resistant, or struggling students is not recognized as a valuable skill.

It is.  Not everyone can teach.

Nancy Flanagan, of the Education Week blog Teacher in a Strange Land, and I met ten years ago when we worked together to create the graduate course "Teacher as Change Agent" for Virginia Commonwealth University.

Recently, we teamed up again to review the past decade and the changes in education revolving around Teacher Leadership.  The short answer is "not much."  Teacher Leadership has become a buzz word but is far from a reality.

What would a teacher-led profession look like?  A whole lot different from today.

First, recognized master teachers would be leading professional development, all teachers would work in true learning communities to examine student work, share instructional strategies, and allocate resources.  Teachers would both set standards and work together to evaluate student work against those standards.  Teachers would also specialize in differing roles of leadership like instructional leadership, education management, and administrative roles.

Teachers would be advisors to policy makers, create content, examine the work of other teachers, review the work of pre-service programs, all while keeping a foot firmly in the classroom.  This would mean a division of teacher time with more time away from students (like the best performing nations), and a re-imagining of the educational structure.

The real plus would be in what is gained when teachers are involved in creating and evaluating the work that they do.  Just as students gain the most when they are brought in on choice and evaluation, self-examination and collegial problem-solving lifts all boats.  This is what is already happening in the highest performing nations.

My awakening came in the Intensive Summer Institute of the National Writing Project where we were invited to make our own work the subject of inquiry.  This is where I learned, through the modeling of the institute, how to invite students into their own learning process.  It is also where the sharing of practice helped other teachers learn and grow, just as I learned from them.  It was electrifying and has kept me energized and involved in my work ever since.

The National Writing Project has found that 98% of the teachers who have gone through the Institute have stayed in education throughout their careers.  Stability in the workforce is another (cost-reducing) plus when teachers are valued for their hard won expertise in marrying theory with effective practices among students in real classrooms. This savings would be passed on in the form of increased compensation--low pay being another reason good teachers flee the classroom.

We cannot ask every teacher to relinquish time with family and rejuvenating rest and recreation to achieve the knowledge and skills needed to be highly effective.  Currently, the outliers in effective practice have gained their knowledge by building their own professional networks--going solo and working hard outside of compensated time.

We already know the conditions which create effective practice and these conditions should be job-embedded.  That means re-allocating resources so teachers have what they need most: time and access to good practices.

And that means a fight, because those who are already getting the resources will not willingly hand them over.

Personally, I would start by  repurposing the three-year, $110 million contract with Pearson by the state of Virginia.

I would gladly hand over all my free tote bags and coffee mugs for a chance at that challenge.

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