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We Must Keep the Good Teachers We Have

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Several Commentaries with widely divergent views served the useful purpose this past fall of focusing attention on a subject that often seem to get short shift in the ongoing debate on education reform and revitalization: the need for good teachers. The essays have rightly suggested--whether arguing for or against alternative routes, for or against current practice in schools of education--that unless the present and growing shortage of good teachers is overcome, no other efforts at school reform can succeed.

But in their zeal to support views on how best to augment the professional teaching corps, the authors have failed to acknowledge what may well be a more pressing need: to conserve and preserve the extraordinary resource of dedicated and committed teachers who are presently in the nation's classrooms.

They are not alone, of coarse, in overlooking what may seem to be the obvious.

There is not a single report or treatise or commission that has addressed educational issues in recent months--or years--that has not mentioned in some way the need to support the classroom teacher. But these statements of concern are tucked away among the lists of priorities almost as afterthoughts, with far greater emphasis given to "innovation," "new initiatives," "Reform," "Restructuring," and the like. In our enthusiasm for making great strides into the future, we seem to be overlooking to our own detriment the resources of the present.

A useful analogy might be the dramatic leap into space in the 1960's that forced us to look back at our own planet, begin to take stock of its fragility, and take steps to preserve that which we have. In this context, the classroom teacher is surely an endangered species.

In schools, teachers often labor in virtual isolation. Once the classroom door closes, they are alone with 30 to 40 young people for whom they are charged with the awesome responsibility of shaping their minds and thoughts. A terrible, terrifying, and wonderfully exhilarating responsibility. We make the teachers accountable for the future of the nation, and yet as we do that we give them poor salaries, place them on the lowest rung of the institutional hierarchy that constitutes society's educational process, and make their presence merely incidental to most policy-setting situations.

We worry about retention and dropout rates for students; we should be worrying at least as much about such rates among teachers.

This revealing moment occurred at a recent conference in Washington convened by the U.S. Education Department: A speaker at one of the sessions had asked a roomful of several hundred listeners to indicate by a show of hands how many had either begun their careers or had at some time had experience in the classroom. A modest estimate is that three of every four participants' hands were raised. The next question was, "How many of you are still in the classroom?" Perhaps a total of a dozen hands were proudly raised, and the startled gasp that swept the room spoke to how keenly the lesson was felt.

The difference, of course, is that those who are initially drawn to education for whatever reason do not stay in the classroom if they are among "the brightest and the best." They move "up" to administrative jobs, they become constituents or supervisors, they write books and do research. They do not stay in the very place where they are most needed and where they should be most esteemed. That well-merited respect is lacking not only in terms of the material rewards and symbols of power society grants to its most favored; it is lacking also in the sense of self-worth that teachers express when asked about themselves.

All too often, when teachers are asked about what they do, their answer is prefaced by "I'm just ...." And when national studies and reports and commissions mention the importance of classroom teachers, the comments are invariably couched in terms of what is needed to make teachers better, to give teachers the skills they need, and to improve our teaching force.

All of these are laudable and necessary objectives, but what also is needed is a profound reordering of priorities in our nation's thinking, to the end that the profession of teaching takes its place rightful among those to which our brightest and our best aspire in response to strong signals that this work is the most challenging, most rewarding, and most valued that they can seek. Fortunately, although classroom teachers may be threatened by the same seemingly overwhelming forces that undermine the effectiveness of so many of our schools-overcrowding, underfunding, too many demands on too little time--the endangered species is not yet extinct. More fortunately still, we know a lot about how to go about saving it, and the process for doing so is neither mysterious nor impossible to attain.

For the past 10 years, the National Leadership Program for Teachers has been involved in just such an effort, and the testimony of more than 60,000 classroom teachers who have participated in it speaks convincingly of its effectiveness. They write affectingly of what it means to be listened to as a professional, to be recognized and respected for their achievements and expertise, to have time to converse with and exchange ideas with their colleagues, and to experience a rejuvenation and rededication they had not thought possible.

The fundamental assumptions underlying the program are that teachers learn best from other teachers and that what individual teachers do in the classroom lies at the very heart of school reform. The program model, then, provides experienced, dedicated classroom teachers with the opportunity in month-long residential institutes to learn the new skills and acquire the new information they need to prepare their students for a new age.

But it also provides them with the opportunity, through outreach programs and one-week institutes all over the country, to pass that information along to their less well prepared colleagues. In this way, new knowledge, skills, and teaching methods are disseminated rapidly, teachers gain intellectual revitalization from increasing their own knowledge and from learning new ways of looking at old problems. And, their sense of self-worth is enhanced: They are relied upon as agents of change, rather than being told that change must occur because they have somehow failed.

Our greatest resource in the national effort to rise to the challenge of the next century is being overlooked, if not squandered. We need new teachers, but we desperately need to keep those we have and make it possible for them to do the job they are prepared to do and want to do.


Dale S. Koepp is deputy director of the National Leadership Program for Teachers at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

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