My friend and fellow Michigan teacher, Cossondra George, recently asked:
Teachers ought to serve as gatekeepers for admission into the profession--and until that happens, we can't lay claim to being fully professional. I'm all for raising the bar for entrance to teaching (using better tools than SAT or Praxis scores), and investing more time, resources and research on effective teacher development.
In the meantime, however, we have teachers who are not doing the job well enough. Some of them should be gone--tomorrow; others have plenty of untapped potential but are floundering. No point in repairing the rusty gate granting access to teach unless we pay attention to supporting teachers once they're in the field.
Struggling teachers come in two basic flavors: #1) teachers who haven't had sufficient experience or training to do the job well and #2) teachers who once had the disposition and tools to be good teachers, but have checked out due to cynicism, fatigue, bitterness and unforgiving working conditions.
The first group is not necessarily easier to deal with. In some environments, "professional development" is seen as an administrative duty, and early-career teachers are threatened by the idea that their performance might be evaluated and found wanting. Their daily practice is marked by the overriding desire to keep a low profile. All teachers--from rank newbies to award-winning veterans--must consider themselves collaborative learners and practitioners. All of us are responsible for lending plans, tips, materials and support to new teachers.
One thing that can be done by accomplished veterans: asking newer teachers for their ideas, and approaching them as full colleagues, rather than those who need help. I work with many first- and second-year teachers who are pretty vocal about observed shortcomings in their assigned mentors. Most faculties adopt a kind of pecking order. Flattening that hierarchy--opening doors and sharing uncertainties--can help. Novice teachers ought to be considered for leadership roles, such as curriculum writing or the school improvement team, rather than dumping unwanted, time-sucking class advisories or club sponsor roles on them.
The second group of ineffective teachers is a different problem. I worked for decades in a strongly veteran culture, which equated years of service with accrued power and influence. I eventually discovered that many of the teachers I saw as jaded burn-outs were once enthusiastic and creative, but had had their mojo squashed by a culture of anger and perceived betrayal.
For a teacher trained in the 70s, teaching to a mandated and scripted reading program feels like being told that the best lessons in their tool bags are useless, and their judgment flawed. For a teacher who's spent 20 years in Detroit, bringing in used clothing and peanut butter sandwiches for neglected students, blaming teachers for the system's failures now is callous.
Some of those favorite lessons and teaching methods are useless junk. But--a significant group of teachers who retain the potential to be very effective in the classroom have found the only "leadership" role open to them is fighting back against systemic change through their unions. They need to have their professional experience validated and acknowledged; they're not going accept either praise or criticism from someone they don't respect, but they have not stopped caring about their students' learning.
So there is an opportunity to salvage good teaching--and valuable contextual experience-- by acknowledging that veteran teachers have something to contribute: been there, tried that, learned from it. We might start by asking dried-up veteran teachers "Why did you choose to be a teacher?" The ones who say "June, July and August" can be dismissed. But the ones who say "I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives" deserve to have their ideas heard, at least.
old friend inadvertently gave me the title for this blog when he let me know
that a true Michigan conservationist and sportsman-Rusty Gates--passed over to
the great fly fishing stream in the sky last week. Rusty Gates understood that in order to learn
to fish, you had to stand in the river for a time. And so it is with teaching.
Image: Neil Whiteside@Flickr Creative Commons