The first part of this list generated a lot of support from teachers and former teachers alike. Thanks to all for a great discussion.
Teachers enter their profession for a variety of reasons, so this list isn't intended to be exhaustive or representative of all teachers' priorities or preferences in their work environment. I am trying, however, to capture some of the struggles that I have read about, observed and experienced during my six-year teaching career and beyond. Without further ado, items 1-5 in How to Make Teaching a Better Career:
5. Value all specialties equally
Having been a music teacher, this one hits close to home for me. All teachers, though, feel the negative effects of the de facto teaching hierarchy. There is an unsaid rule in nearly all schools that the most valuable instructional time is that in which students are receiving direct instruction in English literacy or mathematics. Perhaps "unsaid" is not the appropriate term, since many school cultures make no pretense about the primacy of those subjects. The reasons for this are numerous and complicated, but researchers have yet to determine whether there is a correlation between instructional minutes and measurable educational outcomes. In the meantime, common sense and surveys tell us that when there is an imbalance of authority or priorities between teachers and their colleagues, the work environment suffers.
First of all, math and literacy teachers are the object of the most scrutiny by administrators and school boards. Their lesson plans are tightly managed, their classes watched like hawks and their quantitiative data studied carefully. In contrast, less-tested or not-tested subject specialties are often given significantly less thought or feedback. Their plans are not frequently read; their methodology is not proactively critiqued; their classes are rarely visited or observed. This imbalance is not fair to either side, particularly when there is no empirical reason to do so. There is, however, a political reason for this imbalance, having to do with test culture, funding formulas, and misplaced confidence in standardized testing. More on that later.
It doesn't take a genius to understand the impact that this imbalance has on morale. Literacy and math teachers are much more exposed and subject to criticism; other subjects feel neglected or fear for the continued funding of their teaching position or programs. Overstressed or underappreciated teachers tend to leave: correcting this imbalance will help keep our teachers happy and in the workforce.
4. Evaluate teachers based on what they do
Everyone wants to get rid of Bad Teachers. Bad Teachers are... bad. Unfortunately, most folks don't have a clear idea of what constitutes a Bad Teacher. Still, there has been a good deal of public discussion lately about teacher evalution systems, or teacher accountability (a term loaded with passive aggression). Soapbox: teachers have always been accountable to their students, the families of their students, their colleagues and their administrators. I digress. If you know a teacher, talk to them about how they are evaluated, and please get back to me with the number of times they roll their eyes. In many districts across the US, teachers' continued employment is dependant on a formula that carries the veneer of legitimacy and objectivity but is, in reality, a convoluted time suck with little relevance to the craft of teaching. Convoluted time suck is not a good teacher retention tool.
Let me go further in depth. Most public school districts are now using a formula based on wide-eyed optimist education researchers, well-meaning but ignorant philanthropists (rhymes with Pill Skates), and opportunistic politicians. Compliance with these systems, in my conservative estimate, has probably collectively cost millions of productivity hours. Hours that could have been spent teaching, planning, or doing otherwise meaningful work. These formulae are usually based on a weighted average of standardized test scores, some sort of curated before-and-after test score, classroom observations and, in some cases, surveys of students and families. Sounds really thorough right? In reality, it's nothing more than a very, very expensive way to do the same things that educators have been doing for years.
The standardized test criterion is woefully reflective of the worst possible priorities. There is literally nothing that you can infer with any degree of significance from one teacher's students' standardized tests scores in one year. Zero. Nada. Worse yet, only two subjects are typically associated with these scores. As a music teacher, my teacher score was based on literacy standardized test scores for the entire school. It's insulting. The before-and-after assessment refers to giving one's class a test in the beginning of the year (before) and then a similar or identical test at the end of the year (after) to determine the "value add" that the teacher had on that class's acheivement. Seems reasonable, until you account for the fact that the teachers themselves give the assessments and grade the assessments. If they trust teachers with all that resposibility, why the heck can't they trust teachers to do their jobs? The assumptions just don't add up. And finally: observations. No matter how much training you do, observations are subjective and prone to high variability. They are probably the most relevant way to judge teachers, but the fact remains that observations can and do get manipulated by biased observers. Oh, well!
Teacher evaluation is unfortunately very short on substance. Let's take a fresh look on what, if anything, these newfangled approaches are really adding to the efficacy of our teaching workforce. Most teachers don't see it, and that is beyond frustrating when their paychecks and professional pride are on the line.
3. Stop test culture
Standardized tests offer very little utility in the classroom. Students hate them. Teachers hate them. Standardized tests are poor predictors of just about everything you'd want a young person to know upon graduating high school. Since No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, a bipartisan coalition of corporations and politicians are systematically organizing our public schools around standardized test administration and outcomes. This is insane, and teachers know it.
Since there has been plenty written on this subject at greater depth and breadth than I could hope to use, I'll let Google do the heavy lifting for interested readers. But I'd like to share an anecdote from my own experience as a music teacher to drive the point home. Much of my curriculum in grades 6, 7, and 8 centered around the use of the web. Since I didn't have a music room, and most other methods of making music require equipment and soundproofing that our school did not have access to, our laptop cart became the most important musical instrument for these young people. I found webapps that were instructive and engaging and put together the most meaningful and personal projects I could for my students.
But for nine weeks(!) I couldn't use the internet for at least part of the school day. That's right, as recently as 2014, students in my Chicago public school could not use the internet as part of instruction because it would take away bandwidth from other students who were taking district-mandated standardized testing. Nine school weeks equals 25% of total school days. This is simply wrong. Not only were my students being robbed of a valuable resource, my lesson planning became fragmented and I felt anything but respected and supported as an educated professional. I know I am not alone in having a story about how standardized testing negatively affected my morale in the workplace.
2. Enforce chain of command
Chain of command is the principle that problems should be addressed directly with the involved parties first, then escalated if a satisfactory solution cannot be found. For example, if your neighbor is being too loud, knock on their door and ask them to keep it down before calling the cops. It's hard to respect the chain of command: it means being proactive and looking problems straight in the eyes. But it's important. Parents: if you have a problem, tell the teacher. Don't run and tattle to the principal first. But, even more importantly:
Administrators, do not allow parents to talk to you about an issue with a teacher without uttering the following: "have you spoken to the teacher about it? Where? When? How?" School administrations are the solution to the problem, and the good news is that the solution means less work for you: stop micromanaging your teachers' decisions. Furthermore, stop entertaining demands to change grades or re-take tests. Stop changing or micro-managing discipline choices ex post facto. It might not make the angry parent happy, but you will be doing a service to your teachers and the school community by preserving the autonomy and authority of all the adults in the school. There is a time and a place to help your teachers make sound educational choices, but if you find yourself doing it in the middle of a problem all you'll be doing is frustrating your teacher and telling families that they can push around your faculty.
1. Meaningfully address poverty and racism
Racism and poverty are perhaps the largest and most overlooked influences on our system.
Many politicians bemoan our test score deficiencies relative to other nations. What they don't say is that our affluent, white public schools are virtually at parity with the rest of the world. We are providing for those students just fine; it is our students who are of color or living in poverty (or both) that have been underserved. Poverty is the strongest predictor of nearly all quantified educational outcomes, and this manifests itself in numerous ways throughout the public schools. In addition, race is correlated with harsher disciplinary action in public schools. This may add context to why a disproportionately larger amount of the teaching workforce is white as compared with the general population of the US. This is a very important issue that is bigger than the education industry, but it is number one on this list because poverty and racism are regrettably influential in public schools and are proving to be very difficult to fix.
Instead of looking at our society and understanding the complex, insitutional reasons for our perceieved problems in the public schools, though, we have gone ahead and made life much more difficult for so many educators and students. If we fix this problem - the unequal treatment of poor and/or black and Latino students - teachers will find a much more satisfying work environment. After all, equal opportunity for every student is perhaps the loftiest goal of education and perhaps the reason why most teachers got into this profession to begin with.
Keep the conversation going
Feel free to tweet me @jbones3000 for a friendly chat about this or any other subject. Though I have left my education career and am very happy in my new career, education is still a very strong personal interest of mine. Teachers: you are awesome!