Saturday, October 6, 2012

Not "Just" a Teacher...

I've spent my free time recently preparing remarks in response to recognition as an Inspiring Educator by my alma mater Shenandoah University.

So, I'll cheat a little here and just post those remarks.  Warning: it's lengthy.  Also, I cribbed some from earlier posts.  My remarks are directed toward other teachers and, I hope, inspire others to take action.

For those who prefer not to read: Not "Just a Teacher"

Not “Just a Teacher” but the Hope for America’s Future.

         When you’ve been asked what you do for a living have you ever replied, “Oh, I’m just a teacher…”  Or maybe you have heard others consider what they might want to do with their lives, and they throw teaching into consideration.  As in: “I think I will teach.  Then that will give me time in the afternoons to….(fill in the blank)  write my novel, pursue my acting career, take classes for my real career.” 
         Those of us in the teaching field who have spent a lifetime working to create a better future for the following generation are at a distinct disadvantage. Teaching is probably the only career where nearly every person in the nation has watched the work on a daily basis.  We have all been taught, so naturally we feel that we can do the job easily enough.  It certainly looks easy from a desk in the room.
         Of course those of us who have been in the field for a while know the full scope of the job and snicker at the “I’ll use my afternoons to pursue another career” commentary.   We wait with our arms folded to see how that plan works out.
         If I were to get my wish I would expunge the phrase “just a teacher” from all conversations, and would especially insist that teachers themselves never let these words pass their lips.  No coffee cup of mine (or anyone else’s for that matter) would ever read: “Those who can, do.  Those who cannot, teach.”  Because teachers in this nation do, and do, and do, and do for nearly every child of every parent in the country.
         But just what is it that teachers do?
         In 2010 and 11 I was privileged to serve on the National Education Association Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.  Our charge was to envision a teaching profession, led by the teachers themselves.  For me, this was an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: to see teaching established as a true profession.  One of the other commissioners on the team was Mary Hatwood Futrell.  You may not remember her, but I do.  She was the NEA president in 1983 when "A Nation at Risk" was released.  At the NEA convention Futrell called for the same thing that was recommended in the 1983 report: a Teaching Profession.  I watched her speak on television.  I wanted that then.  I think we are long overdue for it now.  To serve with her has been a chief satisfaction of my career.
         In our work on the commission we were frequently reminded that the definition of a profession is that it claims a clear, rigorous, universally accepted body of knowledge and skills.   So the question of what is it teachers know and are able to do was central to our work.
         Though the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards had, I felt, already defined much of this work, we set out to examine the entire continuum of a teaching career from pre-service through a career ladder that would ensure that teachers who grow and excel in their career might continue to enjoy challenges, growth, and financial reward without leaving the classroom.  Keeping talented teachers in front of students should be a chief goal of any educational system.     
We defined the following knowledge as necessary for success in today’s and the future’s classrooms:

  •    *  Knowledge of the content matter.
  •      8Child, adolescent, and abnormal psychology
  •       *English language development and second language acquisition strategies
  •       *Instructional methods, strategies, and practices
  • ·      Curriculum models and practices
  • ·      Instructional technology practices and information technology use
  • ·      Standards-based curriculum design
  • ·      Content-based reading and writing strategies
  • ·      Instructional adaptations to address students’ individual learning styles, readiness to learn, and level of independence
  • ·      Instructional accommodations for students’ special learning needs
  • ·      Impact of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, race, gender, language skills, disability, and other factors on teaching and learning
  • ·      And classroom management strategies
And that is just the knowledge that every teacher today needs in order to serve our diverse population.  In addition to those, teachers need to learn how to do the following:

  • ·      Plan instruction
  • ·      Guide students through a variety of learning experiences
  • ·      Assess student progress
  • ·      Analyze student learning out comes
  • ·      Diagnose special needs, prescribe learning strategies, develop remedial plans, and adjust instruction to suit special needs
  • ·      Reflect on practice
  • ·      Collaborate with colleagues
  • Incorporate 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, into teacher practice.
It turns out that teaching is rocket science.
         Though that is the knowledge we identified, the best teachers have so much more. And the disposition to teach is much less easy to quantify, but I will make a stab at it.
         Since most teachers are women, their supposed frailty as the weaker sex often leads to an outsider's view of teachers as clueless, sheltered idealists, out of touch with the world.
         Nothing of the sort.
         A career teacher has seen every permutation of human behavior and dealt with it at eye-level: students who have been abused, students who abuse others or drugs, incidents of criminal behavior, mental illness, extreme poverty and homelessness, sexual aggression, bullying, breakdowns, violence, along with smaller matters like broken hearts, illness (think everything from vomit and bloody noses to a shocking death), fire drills, bomb threats, lockdowns, extreme weather, car accidents—the whole panorama of human conflict. 
         Teachers cannot afford to be cowed. 
         No flinching allowed.
         They plow in to find the source of a problem and then model the strength and skills to move students beyond those realities to imagine a different life.  
         Just part of the job.
         It is a balancing act that excellent teachers can make look very easy.
         It isn’t. 
         Not everyone can do it.
         It means hearing about student struggle without blinking. Or running away.
         It means acknowledging situations with compassion while exhibiting confidence.  Kids need to see adults who can handle “whatever” without wigging out.
         And then teachers will insist on and assist kids to cope and continue learning.
         Teachers who fail make mistakes of two kinds: coddling hard-luck kids and expecting less than their best, or going overboard by ignoring hindrances and focusing solely on curriculum.  
         One instructional text puts it this way:  Some teach kids.  Some teach their subject.  The best teach their subject to kids.
         And then there is a sense of humor.  That is a must.
         We laugh in the face of puke or public breakdowns – both extremes every teacher faces in the classroom at one time or another.
         We feel the emotional tenor of a building as it ripples through the school year, and shrug off both up and down days to face the next day with the same equanimity as the previous day.
         It is a tightrope walk teachers – primarily women – enact in full view on a daily basis.
         Good teachers know more about the realities of their community than their sheltered friends in business.
         Good teachers are about as real as they come.
         Good teachers are smart, and flexible, and ruffle-proof.
         Good teachers are tough – and warm – and funny. 

         So please don’t tell anyone that you are “just” a teacher.  In fact, if I am an inspiring teacher, I would wish that I could inspire you to stand squarely and claim the revered title of Teacher with a capital “T”.   But I wouldn’t stop there.
         As a member of a profession whose sole objective is to advocate for children, I would ask you to go further by speaking out about the current state of education and the past decade of so-called reforms.
         In 1983, my hero/mentor/role-model Mary Futrell told People magazine: "If we sit back and do nothing, they will push us around.  Teachers are no longer going to be the passive little old ladies who accept what's handed to them."

         Well, I feel that in the current era of reform they have been pushing us around.  In the void created by the failure to establish a true teaching profession—a  hallmark, by the way, of the nations who score at the top of the often reported international PISA exams—policymakers have entered our arena and defined our work for us, often based on assumptions that are neither valid nor true for what it takes to create a climate for effective teaching and learning.
         For instance, we now have standardized tests that teachers neither see, create or assist in scoring, creating the impression that teachers cannot be trusted to either assess or evaluate their own students.  This work has been taken away from the teaching force and added sometimes hobbling costs to localities.
         In an effort to improve scores, scripted lessons and stringent curriculum maps imposed wholesale by systems remove the possibility for individualized teacher decision-making in the immediacy of the classroom, where teachers can assess student’s abilities and understandings and can re-teach or re-group when children fall behind the approved schedule. Researchers who have observed and documented teachers involved in the real work of classrooms, estimate that a teacher makes approximately 1,320 discreet decisions in a day.  Scripts and timelines strip away the decision-making autonomy of a professional teacher.
         Other seemingly benign efforts to improve schools, like Teach for America or Career Switcher programs, place the emphasis on content knowledge and give scant training and attention to the other skills of an effective teacher.  Programs such as these imply that anyone can teach, a premise which puts children in the hands of novices who are often overwhelmed by their new careers.  Frequent turnover of instructors and instability in the neighborhood school is the result.
         Finally, the most recent reforms are teacher evaluations tied to student test scores which have at their core the assumption that one test on one day is an accurate measure of the time, effort and talent a teacher puts into instruction.  The other suspect premises are that all children proceed at the same rate and that it is a valuable use of resources and instructional time to submit students to relentless testing in order to evaluate the adults in the room.
         The debate has been going full throttle on every side of the aisle for ten years and all corners have been heard loud and clear except from the teachers themselves.  Those who have had sway in these new directives are now threatening the very fabric of a touchstone of our democracy, a free and public education for every child. 
         So what can we do?  First, know your students.  Know your work.  Continue to learn and grow.  Be proud of what you do each day for the children of our community.  And in the confidence borne of effective practice, demand that the work of teachers be recognized as a profession. 
         The outline for establishing a teaching profession exists in the document created by the members of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.  Secretary Arne Duncan has given the report his support through his R.E.S.P.E.C.T. program.  Seek out the report and the initiative and make sure it becomes a reality by insisting that teacher organizations you belong to join in the efforts to create a new profession.  We need to stand on our authority as the deliverers of instruction and speak in a single voice in defense of a joyful education as a necessary right for every child.  Every child should have access to a rich curriculum that includes music, art, and physical education.  Every child should be able to go to a neighborhood school and learn in safety beside their diverse neighbors.  Every child should have a well-trained, well-compensated teacher leading them in lessons that are appropriate for the child’s age and abilities.  Every child needs a well-lit, well-resourced classroom where the message “You are valued” is apparent in their surroundings.  Every child should have access to the joy that comes from learning and the opportunity to find and leverage their own potential.
         Please join me in working toward a true teaching profession, where the voice of those who know, love, understand, support, encourage, and challenge the children of America are heard with the respect due to those who have the knowledge, skills, and compassion to build the next generation every day in every classroom.
         And never say, “I’m just a teacher” again.


  1. Brilliant.

  2. I very much like this. I agree with most of your comments. The only thing I would say is that Teach for America and Career Switcher programs are not all bad. Yes, they do place the emphasis on content; however, that does not necessarily mean that the teachers they produce are poor teachers.

    One of the best teachers I ever had was a Career Switcher teacher. One of the things I liked about him was that he came in without a lot of the standard assumptions about teaching. He came in with a passion for his subject, a lot of knowledge about it, and little knowledge of how things often worked. For students looking for extra help, he was always in his classroom available for help every day before school (not just 15 minutes before - an hour before school started), most days after school, and whenever else was needed, as long as the student talked to him. He always had tests graded quickly - the longest it ever took for me to get a test back was the day after the test was given. This might seem small, but he taught a cumulative subject, where if you missed one thing, it grew exponentially. The quick turn around helped students catch areas they were having problems immediately, so that they could re-learn and he could re-teach before the class had moved on too much. He was always available to talk to students, and in fact was a good adviser for me on non-school problems. He got students to think through things on their own instead of immediately turning to him or another student for help. And, perhaps most importantly for me, he taught with passion for his subject. I had hated his subject for years, due almost exclusively to a very poor teacher I had at one point, and so dreaded his class - and yet, by the end of the year, he had me excited about the subject and eager to learn tangentially related subjects because they were related to this fascinating subject, and that was awesome!

    That was my big comment. Overall, though, this was a wonderful post.

  3. Yep. Some career switchers are great. Others are complete disasters like the math teacher at one of my schools who dealt with difficult students by refusing to teach them. And then failed the entire class who had to repeat an entire year. In any case, without professional training, a sensible induction program and a career ladder that supports good teaching we are just running experiments on other peoples children. We don't put up with this with the veterinarians who touch our pets. Why is it OK fo play around with children's lives? One positive example does not prove a valid argument.
    As for Teach for America. I have addressed that in the post "I thought I knew TFA but..."

  4. Thank you for your defense of teachers. Makes me want to stand up and cheer.

  5. Allison, I'm so glad this resonates with you. Teachers do much that should be celebrated. Rather than thinking of this as a defence of teachers, I'd like you and others to consider this as an OFFENSIVE move. Not offensive in the distasteful realm, but an opportunity to tell others how deeply complex and intellectually engaging our work is. Unfortunately, no one is out there waiting to hand us professional status. We must claim it. Please speak to others besides teachers about this. Please celebrate yourselves and your work. Steal words from here if it helps. We need to work together on this.

  6. Nice post. Thanks for sharing this post with us.

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  7. Teaching is the least celebrated profession yet one of the noblest.

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