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Let's Get Rid of Those Teaching-Profession Clichés

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Every teacher-leader event I've attended in the last four years has featured the following clichés:

  • "Teachers make thousands of decisions a day."
  • "Just because the public spends years as students doesn’t mean they know anything about teaching."
  • "Teachers don't really get summers off."

Each time, members of the audience nod in agreement or purse their lips and shake their heads in despair. Before they became clichés, these thoughts helped us think differently. Now, they’re leading us to think placidly. That can't help the teacher-leader movement. Therefore, unless we retool these "truths," we should give them a rest. Here are some ideas how.

Teachers Make Thousands of Decisions a Day

Teaching is a decision-driven skill, but we dilute the nature and impact of the decisions we make by clumping them together in a single number. If I'm going to talk about the decisions teachers make, I'm going to emphasize the panorama of decisions we do make. Our responses to students can build them up or bring them down. Lesson planning takes hours of contemplation. Impactful and meaningful committee decisions may take years to enact. Personal career decision may change one’s life.

Someone might say that everyone understands the range of our decisionmaking. But did you ever wonder how many decisions you made each day before someone told you?

Someone else might object that it takes too much time to talk about the nature or our decisionmaking. But if it's worth talking about at all, isn't it worth talking about it in depth?

Finally, what improves the public image of teaching—a dubious datum or a brief expository? If I weren't in the profession and a teacher said, "You know, I make thousands of decisions a day," I'd say, "Name them. Heck, name 100."

Potential rewording: “Accomplished teachers possess an intricate and unique skill set for decisionmaking. We make innumerable decisions on a broad range of time scales that impact a broad spectrum of issues and people."

Having Been a Student Doesn't Qualify Someone to Judge Teachers

it does, within limits. A high school graduate has spent some 14,000 hours in school with dozens of different teachers. That is fair data set to judge how well teachers execute the visible part of their work.

Here are some thoughts that surface whenever I hear this cliché:

  • Teachers often promote policies using their experience as students rather than their expertise as teachers. I've heard this a lot when we discuss issues such as discipline and retention.
  • We never discount public opinions aligned with our own as invalid on the grounds that the public isn't qualified.
  • We should talk as much about how the media and the public's experience with their children's teachers influence their opinions as much as their own experience as students.

But the public’s judgement on teaching isn’t comprehensive. A deeper exploration would identify the areas in which teachers should pay close attention to the public's criticisms and in which the public should defer to teachers' expertise.

A comparison to medicine works here. We’re qualified as patients to judge our doctors’ accessibility, demeanor, and how well we fair under their care. We’re not qualified to understand how they interpret our symptoms in light of their better knowledge.

Members of the public are qualified to judge the visible part of teaching, particularly how well it helps students learn. They're not qualified to understand how teachers apply their specialized knowledge of teaching and learning.

Potential rewording: "Teachers should encourage the public to judge our public performance. We should also work to make the specialized nature of our work more appreciated."

Teachers Don't Really Get Summers Off

I get summers off. I know that's a heresy in teacher-leader circles, but I'll stand by it. From the last day in May to the first day in August, I have over 60 days to spend any way I want. There have been summers where I didn't work a minute.

I'll nearly always choose to update my lessons, attend conferences, and help facilitate professional-development events (often for compensation). But no one is twisting my arm to do this; I am exercising my autonomy. I have chosen to enrich my identity as a teacher to include outside leadership work.

Furthermore my summer professional activities are nothing like what I do in the classroom. They are not as hard or time-consuming. They renew me, help me deepen my commitment to the profession, and are fun. That could be said of teaching, too, but in a different way.

The end of a school year may be happy and sad, but it usually is a relief. Yet, no matter how motivated or eager we are to begin a new year, is it ever a relief? Why should we be indignant when someone says, "It must be nice to get summers off?" Why is it even brought up during teaching events? Are we that insecure?

Someone is more likely to tell me that I deserve a break after teaching nine months or ask what it's like and what I do with the time. In fact I've heard far more teachers complain about people putting us down for lounging around all summer than I've heard people actually make those comments.

Potential rewording: "I celebrate summers! What other profession has two consecutive months during which practitioners can create their own path—to improve themselves as teachers, to rest, to travel. It's a great thing and everyone should envy us!"

Teacher leaders make their bones first by accomplished classroom work, then by original thinking. As the efficacy of teacher leadership grows, let’s keep our eyes out for the complacency in language that leads to complacency in thinking.

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