courtesy of Academic Impressions
Like all teachers around the country, I am saddened by the indictments of administrators and teachers in Atlanta for cheating on the state’s standardized tests. It’s disheartening, embarrassing, and maddening to once again see that the legacy of recent education policy is another negative portrayal of educators. At what point did teachers become caricatures that are either beleaguered, exhausted public employees or abusive, cheating, thieves of public money? Intellectually, we know that all educators can’t be painted with a broad brush, judged by the actions of a few, or even jointly innocent by virtue of mass victimization. People outside of education have taken over reform and policy, advising lawmakers and media, and building a false adversarial story that pits teachers against the rest of America. How did this happen? How did expert educators allow an incursion of non-experts to tell us what to do? In reality, we may have ceded our career field to outsiders because we have not taken charge of our own professional futures.
In this two-part exploration, I intend to delve into the not-so-popular topic of incentives and professional advancement. I very strongly believe that teachers are the experts in the field of education and should not only be treated that way – we should treat ourselves that way.
It is still widely accepted that education is a field one enters in large part because it provides a sense of safety and security. A teacher could settle into a classroom, do their thing, and 30 years later… voila! They are done! The problem with this model, just like the old manufacturing/industrial model, is that it cannot adjust to the vast changes in society, the economy, technology and education itself. We bristle at the idea of merit-based pay because for a century, education has been a completely experienced-based system. The longer you are in, the more you get paid, and the more job security you have. Even among civil servant jobs, the lack of professional incentive in education is remarkable. But that doesn’t matter, because – obviously –teachers aren’t in it for the pay! But that pedantic response does not address the reality that we have not considered ourselves, nor have we treated ourselves, like the professionals we are. Professionals in medicine, business, law, finance, and even government must prove themselves to be the experts they are in order to increase their viability in, and their value to, their field. They are motivated to do so because they want to reach for that next level of professionalism and expertise that awaits them – and because each new level provides new incentive (sometimes pay, sometimes leadership or certification or other professional advancement). But teachers have had no such incentive mechanism built in to their profession – possibly because society still assigns teachers a mythical ability to survive and thrive on love for children alone (and we buy into that), or possibly because the teachers themselves do not have a solid professional advancement model from which to work.
When I entered education in 2004, I had already spent over twelve years in the legal field. During those years, I had to prove myself an expert in my field, and that I was exceptional at my job in order to move up to a new level of challenge and position (and pay). When I was evaluated by my superiors, my achievement was based on whether I had completed tasks, gone above and beyond what was expected of me, taken initiative, used innovation to accomplish my goals, collaborated successfully and shown consistent leadership. Demonstrating my consistently improved skills in research, client communication, organization and legal writing was also part of the process that determined whether I would be promoted or have more professional opportunities open to me. But when I became a teacher, there was no system of moving forward as a professional. If I was going to challenge myself, I had to find ways to do it internally, usually within the small sphere of my own classroom, or perhaps via extra curricular involvement. There was no program to mentor me to reach for new levels of professional achievement. Most of my colleagues were content to do what they had been doing for decades, and my administrators were preoccupied with student discipline rather than teacher development.
In the end, the bottom line of how I was judged as a professional amounted to the number of years I’d been on the job – not on my skills, best practices, successes of my students, or contributions to my field. This was made painfully clear to me when our district experienced a massive reduction in force, and despite the fact that I had written & developed an entire AP course, had pursued professional development opportunities, was a leader in my union, had developed and instituted a successful peer mediation program, been a coach… I lost my position simply because I had fewer years in than the other teachers in my department. The same thing happened to many other teachers. A colleague and friend of mine: an AP teacher who also ran the entire yearbook program and had successfully achieved an exclusive grant to bring Shakespeare Theater into the school, among many other achievements, lost her position because she’d only been at the school four years. The examples of this sad waste of expertise, talent and energy in our field are endless.
There needs to be a new system in place on which to measure our professional success, advancement, or value to our schools and districts. If a teacher has been in the field for 20 years, why must we assume they are better at their job than the teacher who has been in 10 years… or 5 years? On the other hand, if they are excellent at their job, then there should be no difficulty in demonstrating that and securing that position of seniority based on skill, talent, successes and other areas of professional expertise. The sad fact is that any efforts in which teachers have successfully collectively bargained for the benefits their positions deserve have also allowed the wrong kinds of protections to be put in place. Thus, even the most protective contracts can perpetuate a sedentary profession where there is no incentive to increase in experience, skills and professional successes. In areas where there is no collective bargaining, there are no protections at all. And suddenly, we are surprised to find that our state and national governments think it best to judge us on our student’s performance on standardized tests. A solid professional advancement model from the beginning could have instantly made that alternative as obsolete as it should be.
In Part 2, I will offer some ideas for how we can change our professional model to reflect the fact that not only are we experts, but we deserve to obtain advancement, professional respect, and recognition as a field that is as competitive and focused on excellence as any other career field. Yes, it’s a risk to add incentive, advancement and career options to a field that has enjoyed security in stasis. But that security is no longer there. It’s time we, as individual professionals, and as a career field, stop settling for Safe and start striving for Superior.
Taking Charge of Our Own Profession – Part 2: A New Model