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On The Frontline Of Change

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There is some evidence to suggest that these prospective teachers have only a vague idea of the professional terrain they are about to travel-- that they don't really know how money moves in education, where the power lies, how policy is made or what impact it may or may not have on them and their classrooms. Those topics aren't part of the traditional education school curriculum.

The majority of these new teachers will likely find that being on the other side of the desk in the classroom is much different than they expected. They will encounter situations that they did not anticipate and were not prepared for. And, if past statistics are a reliable guide, 30 to 50 percent of them will leave teaching within the first five years--many out of frustration and disappointment.

Finally, these beginning teachers will soon discover what they probably have been too preoccupied with course work to fully appreciate: that American education is in unprecedented ferment. Fueled by widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the nation's schools, there is mounting pressure to restructure, redesign, and reform them. As a result, teachers are being asked to abandon much of what they were taught and believe about teaching. They are being asked to teach in new ways, meet new standards, and adapt to new curricula and new methods of student assessment.

In short, these new teachers (like their predecessors already in the classroom) will be under increasing pressure to change-- to change themselves, their profession, and their schools. And that is likely to be very discomfiting for people who presumably became teachers because after spending 12 years in traditional schools, they liked the experience well enough to want to spend their lives in them.

Therein lies a central challenge for the reformers: If they are to succeed, they must persuade teachers that the educational system that attracted them in the first place isn't adequate for the future and must be changed--largely by them. Persuade is the operative word, for reforms will not work if they are "done to'' teachers--mandated in typical fashion by higher authority without teachers' consultation or approval.

America's teachers can look upon these demands for change as a burden to be resisted or as an unprecedented opportunity to make teaching the fulfilling, powerful, and ennobling profession that every idealistic new teacher hopes it will be. One thing is certain: No significant or enduring school improvement is possible without the commitment of a well-informed and highly motivated teaching force. And the nation's policymakers and power brokers have come to realize that.

The system does not make it easy for teachers to become involved in reshaping their classrooms and schools. Teachers have been excluded from decisionmaking. Their workday is highly structured and their flexibility constrained by rules and regulations. They lack simple support services that even secretaries have. They have little leftover time or energy to spend on grand plans that may never materialize.

Yet, more and more teachers in districts across the land are becoming involved in changing education and their profession. And in schools where the best reform ideas are taking root, teachers are experiencing new levels of achievement and fulfillment, and they are spreading their enthusiasm to their colleagues.

In an effort to bring some definition to the amorphous reform movement and to highlight the major ideas and programs that may shape the schools of tomorrow, Teacher Magazine offers a "Teachers' Guide To School Reform,'' beginning on page 25.

Thanks to the generosity of the AT&T Foundation, this issue is being sent to some 50,000 prospective teachers. Perhaps it will help smooth the transition from the ivory tower to the trenches for some of them. But even more importantly, perhaps it will convey the vital importance of their role--how much society and the future depend on them and their fellow teacher professionals past, present, and future. --Ronald A. Wolk

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