Note: Maddie Fennell, former Nebraska Teacher of the Year and chair of the National Education Association’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, is guest posting this week.
In 2007 I was honored to be named the Nebraska Teacher of the Year. Like many of my fellow state Teachers of the Year, after the congratulations, the first question was, “When are you leaving the classroom?”
Why do people immediately ask accomplished teachers why they are leaving the MOST important job in a school? Would you ask the best surgeons to put away their scalpels at the height of their careers?
The sad reality is that while the public emotionally values great teachers, the American education system puts teachers on the lowest rungs of the professional ladder. The hallmarks of value in our society - professional autonomy, greater responsibility, and increased compensation - are given to those teachers who leave the classroom. Administration shouldn’t be seen as a permanent path out of the classroom, but as one path in a multidimensional system of changing roles and opportunities.
The problem isn’t individual teachers, it’s the system. We are still operating our profession - and our schools - in a modality that was largely created in the early 20th century (some might argue even earlier.) We have 21st century learners - and teachers! - who can no longer fit into an antiquated system that doesn’t reflect the complexity of our current reality.
So to tackle the problem, you have to take on the system. Gee, isn’t that a fun and easy task?
We have limited space here, so for today I want to talk about two components of the system that need to be completely overhauled in tandem - evaluation and compensation. I want to note that some of the ideas I describe here are already being implemented to some degree in a few places, but none of them (to my knowledge) have been established as interrelated systemic changes.
We have too many traditional evaluation systems that are big on “gotcha” and miniscule on “grow ya.” We get caught up in the interconnectedness between learner and learning, between teacher and teaching. Did you learn to become a great writer because you had a great English Language Arts teacher or because you read all weekend? It becomes so easy to become focused on the complexity of it that we just throw up our hands and say “it can’t be done” or perhaps worse, “just use a test score.” If the evaluation isn’t valid in its development, structure, and execution, everyone loses confidence in the system. When people lose confidence, they develop state of the art defense systems to protect themselves against abuse.
Teaching, like every profession, has practitioners that aren’t up to snuff and need to leave. But we also have great teachers who are being caught up in the same system! I have met many accomplished teachers who have been publicly lauded for doing what they were privately told to stop doing.
As teachers, we are in an interesting position as professional employees predominantly employed in the public sector. This means that government does have a role in our evaluation, in addition to, of course, our employers.
However, as professionals, we need to be sitting down with management to thoughtfully develop and execute evaluation systems. We need to get serious about teacher evaluation and its purpose; and when I say “we,” I mean teachers in the classroom, as well as administrators. Teachers must share responsibility for the professional practice of every teacher in their school. Teachers ceded our role as quality guardians in our profession when we allowed the role of evaluation to be placed solely in administrators’ hands.
Evaluations should be conducted by a trained team that includes administrators and teachers. The goal of the evaluation should be to target every teacher’s areas of strength and areas of needed growth. The system needs to have opportunities for colleagues to observe examples of effective teaching so that those practices can be replicated. The lens through which teaching is judged should be the teacher’s ability to improve student learning in clear and demonstrable ways - NOT JUST BY TEST SCORES (sorry to shout, but I could already hear the grumbling.)
Remediation and plans of assistance should be offered where they are needed. But eventually, if success is not achieved, we as teachers need to shoulder the professional responsibility to be a part of the evaluation team that says “No, you shouldn’t be in this classroom. You are not meeting the needs of the students, and their needs come first.”
With robust evaluation systems that provide regular opportunities for reflecting on practice, we can also differentiate professional development for teachers, just as we differentiate instruction for students. I’m a good teacher, but my skills need to continuously adapt to meet the diverse needs of the ever-changing group of students that I work with every year. I would love to have my own “Teacher IEP” (Individualized Education Plan) that details my strengths and weaknesses and provides targeted training opportunities based on my areas of need.
Let me give you a concrete example: Several years ago, I received my Master’s Degree in Elementary Education with a specialization in math and science - and I ended up being the writing teacher that year! I didn’t love writing and, honestly, I wasn’t really that great at teaching it. No one came into my room to observe me, and no one said “Maddie, let’s help you get better at this.” I knew I wasn’t meeting my students’ needs, so I started looking for professional development opportunities to sharpen my skills.
Why wasn’t there a system in place that would annually monitor my progress, offer feedback, and advocate for skill development? And once I gained those skills, why wasn’t there an opportunity, within the system, to share my learning with my colleagues so that they could become more effective? Teachers know the best ideas in education are often borrowed or stolen from other teachers, but this is too often by happenstance and “off the clock” collaboration. We need to build in meaningful collaboration among professional colleagues into our system, not just try to catch time between classes or outside of school.
Once we have evaluation systems that everyone has confidence in, I believe we can take the leap from differentiating salary primarily by degrees and years of service to differentiating based on skills, assignments, and effectiveness. In a redesigned compensation system, we would move away from “steps and ladders” to something a bit more complex that recognizes the work that teachers are doing and how well they are doing it.
I believe that the public wants to pay teachers more, but they always have an excuse not to - that “bad teacher” again. If we could prove to them that the highest salaries were going to those who worked the hardest (as measured by their skills and assignments through a professional continuum) and achieved the best results (their effectiveness as determined through valid and reliable evaluations), the public’s sense of “fairness” would be fulfilled.
Let’s move on to the professional continuum. Our current professional continuum is generally student teacher - teacher - retired teacher. Generally, teachers can only alter that track by leaving the classroom to become a specialist (like a reading teacher) or an administrator. Hence the question to Teachers of the Year - when are you leaving the classroom? - comes from the fact that our ability to differentiate among teachers in our current system is so limited.
As Jeremy Burrus presented last week at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year annual conference, “Continuums allow a practitioner to grow and develop, plan career trajectories, and advance in their careers.”
To combine some of the work I have been involved with over the past year with the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, the NEA Professional Standards and Practices Committee, and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, I propose the following continuum:
Novice: New teachers who have been licensed by the state. They work under the direction of a professional or master teacher who guides them in their skill development. They primarily follow things “by the numbers” as they acquire the skills needed for effective teaching. They have no assigned professional duties and their class loads are lighter.
Proficient: They have shown mastery of basic effective teaching practices and may be advanced in limited areas; they are proactively seeking to increase their skills. They are allowed additional duties beyond their teaching assignments that match their skills sets (such as coaching, scheduling, and community outreach).
Professional: They exhibit advanced effectiveness. They have a holistic knowledge of teaching, accept responsibility for student learning, and fluidly integrate best practices into their lessons. They practice collaborative autonomy with their peers and regularly reflect on their practices. They may be part of an evaluation team, lead building committees, or be assigned to mentor student teachers. They are assigned more challenging students who are in need of their skills.
Accomplished or Master Teacher: Teachers who have reached “expert” status in the profession. Their mastery of professional skills has been recognized by their peers in a public manner (awards, National Board Certification, etc.). They may be adjunct faculty at a university, mentor novice teachers, share management responsibility at the building-level, or lead district-level committees. They are assigned the students most in need of their advanced skills.
A teacher’s position on the career continuum establishes a base level for annual compensation, but salary levels can increase by demonstrating continued excellence in formal evaluations, evidence of student growth, teaching in hard-to-staff locations or subjects, and taking on additional roles or leadership responsibilities. Compensation is grounded in criteria such as teaching performance, leadership, and student growth, and not simply by years of service or classes taken.
We need the best teachers rooted in our classrooms while allowing them the flexibility to share their myriad skills and expertise across the professional continuum. Let’s get rid of the glass ceilings in our classrooms and seize the opportunities inherent in professional continuums and increasing compensation. Let’s change our system so that the highest compensation and professional acclaim is for staying IN the classroom, not leaving it!
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.