We all want young people to have a great education in the United States. Beyond that, the diversity of viewpoints on how to improve education in our country is breathtaking. No matter what your views are, though, one crucial point in every plan is ensuring that we attract and keep high-quality teachers in the classroom. Right now, that vital component to good education is in trouble: teacher turnover is high and job satisfaction is low. If we expect to retain a competent, effective workforce in our public schools for generations to come, we must make significant changes in how we treat the professionals to whom we entrust our young peoples' minds.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I will draw on my personal experience as a former public school teacher as well as some relevant data points to make ten suggestions to improve the teaching profession. Here we go:
10. More prep time
Sources vary on the exact number, but American teachers are in front of students for more hours than teachers in most/all other countries (depending on your data source). Most American teachers are in front of students all day, save for a short "prep" period (30-45 minutes) and lunch. If you still don't see why that's an issue, imagine you are a project manager who is literally in meetings for the entire work day, yet you are still responsible for a significant amount of employee evaluations, compliance paperwork, phone calls, clerical work and more. Is a half hour really a reasonable about of time for one to accomplish these tasks? Here, I'll make it simple.
What you think teachers do
- Teach lesson
- Grade papers
What teachers actually do
- Teach lesson
- Brady hit Jordan; need to fill out a form (yes, really) so that I can send Brady to the office
- No administrator in the building; Brady gets bounced back to class in the middle of the most complicated part of the lesson
- Crap, Brady is acting out again because there is literally no immediate consequence for his actions
- Spend prep giving Brady a meaningful consequence for his actions while trying to get his parents on the phone but they changed their number and the secretary is out sick today so no phone number and oh god what is life
- Grade papers
- Write note to Brady's parents
- Principal is back
- Stay after school to talk to principal about Brady
- Grade papers
- Modify lesson plans
- Write another lesson plan just for Brady because he missed the whole lesson and when he doesn't know what's going on he hits people
- Complete random pointless task forced upon you by some idiot in your state's captial that is a glorified TPS Report.
A teacher has a steady amount of predictable tasks to complete that are essential to learning, for instance: regular contact with families, grading student work, and creating assessments. But with the thinning of support staff and the huge expansion of administrators' job responsibilities, more and more administrative and clerical work is hoisted onto the teacher. This contributes to burnout and increases turnover rates. If we allocate a realistic amount of prep time for teachers, it will improve their satisfaction with their jobs.
9. Embrace portability
It is becoming rare in the private sector to stay with one company for decades. Whether this is a good thing is in the eye of the beholder, but one thing is clear: there is nothing to gain and much to lose by leaving one teaching job for another. Heaven forbid you move to another state where the license requirements are different and you have to deal with the education world's version of the DMV in order to do the same job you've already been doing for years.
"But teachers get great pensions!" Unless, for some reason, they don't stay in the same place for 25 years. Imagine that! I've paid into two public pension programs. When I left each, I was able to withdraw just a tiny bit more than the amount of cash I contributed. I don't think my gains exceeded inflation. That's a tough pill to swallow - as someone who has moved across the country, this was a big issue that I never really anticipated as a college student. State and municipal pensions are designed for people who stay in one place, and many talented people don't fit that description. The profession is alienating them, and not just with outdated retirement plans.
Seniority is the largest determinant of teacher pay. The more years you have in a given district, the more dollars you take home each paycheck. When you leave District A to teach for District B, you don't take your seniority with you. District B will grant you a fraction of your seniority based on a formula that was determined in a smokey room filled with union bosses and politicians. This is 99% certain to result in a pay cut. The teacher will also forfeit their tenure by leaving. This is the opposite of how it should work. If you want to encourage a working environment that values teachers, stop penalizing them for leaving their jobs. It doesn't stop there: a teacher with too much seniority or too much education(!) can become radioactive, involuntarily pricing themselves out of job mobility even if they are willing to take a pay cut! The way salary tables are determined today, a worker cannot try to cut their asking rate in order to secure a new position in a better environment.
It's not talked about often, but employee mobility is a deterrent against bad management. It keeps everyone from taking each other for granted and encourages compromise. Today, public school teachers have zero credibility when they threaten to quit, because administrations know that they hold all the power. The grass is never greener on the other side. Personally speaking, if teaching were a more portable career I may never have started looking for a new career.
8. Distributed budgeting
Raise your hand if you can name a teacher with a donorschoose grant pending or completed in the past year. OK, put it down. Where the hell did we go wrong as a society when we decided teachers need to spend their precious free time seeking patronage? And yes, often times these donorschoose grants are for NEEDS.
As far as I know, public school budgets are released to the public every year. This does not mean anyone actually knows how the district is spending money. Here's a hint: so much of it is flushed down the drain. Most of the waste comes in the form of political patronage - I won't address that here. There is still a shameful amount of money that is spent needlessly by school districts, though.
Some of the purchases make sense. Writing implements, paper, printers, copiers, maintenance, and IT are examples of essential purchases that benefit the school and make sense to purchase en masse. But there is a great deal of money being spent paying full price (or more) from state-approved vendors on bulk purchases of things that many teachers just don't use. Meanwhile, stuff that teachers actually do use is often purchased with teachers' personal checking accounts, and are often not reimbursed. Imagine if instead of purchasing 100 smart boards, a district actually took those moneys and let teachers allocate them to the purchase of the goods that made sense for their particular classrooms? Teachers are amazing bargain shoppers, they will make district dollars go a lot further than a bulk PO can.
7. Sensible teacher education
Many people are surprised when they learn that the vast majority of the hours spent preparing education majors in college is on concerns other than teaching. This is probably a good thing, because many professors lost touch with the realities of contemporary public school education the moment they cashed their first paycheck from the university. Still, with student teaching sometimes being as brief as 4 months long in some states, many teachers feel unprepared for their first professional position.
Sure, mentorship programs exist. I was lucky enough to share a room with a great teacher my first two years on the job, so I had someone with more expertise to lean on. But for every story like mine, there are many more where a new teacher is matched up with a veteran that does not have the time nor incentive to effectively mentor their protege. Feeling unprepared and unsupported contributes negatively to job satisfaction. Dissatisfied teachers quit.
The solution is related to number 10. Teachers need more time budgeted during the work day in order to accommodate the long list of responsibilities they have that don't involve being in front of a class. Mentoring new teachers would certainly fall under this umbrella.
6. Protect tenure
Before you get out your torches and pitchforks, hear me out on this one. Tenure is one of the most universally misunderstood and vilified aspects of public service today. It's also a very important protection that ensures that personnel decisions are made for educational and professional reasons and not for political reasons or nepotism. For those of you who don't know, public school teacher tenure is a guarantee of due process as a precondition for dismissal from a teaching position. Different jurisdictions have varying rules for how exactly this is implemented, but it essentially means that firing a tenured teacher requires a paper trail and a hearing proving the teacher is not doing their job up to standards.
"Well, that's not what I heard." You're right, it's not. Tenure is not a lifetime employment guarantee, nor is it a license to slack off. "But why do you get due process? I don't get due process when I get laid off." Good question! First of all, teacher layoffs happen. In the unlikely event that the entire non-tenured workforce is laid off, that doesn't prevent a district from laying off tenured teachers. Where I taught, such a dismissal is called a Reduction In Force (RIF). So tenure doesn't prevent a district from responding to declining enrollment, per se.
"But why do you get due process? If my boss wants to fire me, I get fired." Well, it depends. The private sector has rules governing employment termination, and corporate HR offices have their own governance regarding the same. Teachers aren't seasonal workers, they're not contractors, and they're not wage workers. They are credentialed, salaried professionals working a permanent position. Due process is not all that different from certain hurdles that are commonplace in private sector full-time employment.
Because public education is built on the unfortunate assumption that teachers want to stay put (see #9), teachers often outlast their administrators, Board of Education personnel and municipal government officers. The longer a teacher stays, the more expensive they become, and the more value they add to the students and community (this has been studied). They also tend to become very steadfast advocates for the communities in which they've invested their careers. Teachers with high seniority make nice targets for penny-pinching politicians or new administrators who value compliance more than principled disagreement.
And therein lies the moral hazard: without tenure it would be way too easy to just fire the teacher who disagrees with the principal over the new schedule, or the union rep, or the one on top of the salary guide. If that practice became commonplace it would demoralize and destabilize the profession. So I say: if public school teachers are to be compensated according to seniority, and if public school teachers are to be punished for changing jobs (see #9), and if public school teachers are to adhere to educational best practices and not the whims of the administrator or trend du jour, then public school teachers should be able to earn tenure after a certain amount of time.
The rest... coming soon!
I plan to publish the top five soon. In the meantime, please feel free to tweet your feedback @jbones3000!