Education Opinion

Let’s Say You’re a Teacher

By Nancy Flanagan — March 30, 2010 4 min read
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So--let’s say you’re a teacher.

Not “just a teacher,” but one of those special teachers we hear about in news and policy discussions-- the supposedly rare educator who has passionate disciplinary expertise, a toolbag full of teaching strategies and genuine caring for their students. You’re in education because you want to make a difference, change the world, raise the bar. You actually love teaching, finding it endlessly variable and challenging. You plan to spend a long time in the classroom.

So you begin pursuing a graduate degree in education. You notice that getting a masters degree in education is scorned in policy world as having little impact on student learning. A few of your classes are tedious. But some of them are genuinely interesting and valuable, pushing you to think more deeply about the work you do and increasing your content knowledge. Even though pundits declare your advanced degree does not correlate with increased student achievement, you press on. You’re enjoying the intellectual stimulation and--let’s face it-- accruing credits is another way to increase your salary and you need the money.

You’re fascinated by new instructional strategies and curriculum ideas. You’re eager to learn. But your district--which just replaced all its computers in the past two years--has no money for professional development. So you burn two of your business days, pay your own registration fee and mileage, and travel with three colleagues to a conference across the state, where--being a teacher type--you attend every single session and collect tons of free stuff to take back to your classroom in a canvas bag (which you will later give to a student as a reward for reading 25 books). The four of you share the $200 hotel room, and split a pizza. The high life.

You’re eager to share new techniques with colleagues when you return--those digital books would be killer for your schoolwide Mark Twain unit!--but then the State Board, in its wisdom, removes Huckleberry Finn from the 9th grade curriculum framework because talking about race is too risky for teenagers. Even though you’ve been doing just that, for 10 years--and getting amazing feedback about these tough conversations from students.

After fifteen years, when you have children and a mortgage--but still love teaching--you decide to sit for National Board Certification. You already have an advanced degree and a wall full of certificates, but National Board Certification is a greater test of your knowledge and skills than anything you’ve tackled.

You spend about 300 hours videotaping and analyzing your lessons, finding some genuine gaps in your understanding and mastery of good instruction, curriculum and assessment. You share these perceived needs with other candidates for certification--breaking out of the egg-crate isolation endemic in teaching, and looking critically at your practice. In preparation for the National Board subject matter exams, you do a thorough content review across your disciplinary field.

And your good work and honed expertise pay off--you’re among the fraction of National Board candidates who achieve certification in the first round. This means the fee for certification (about 5% of your annual salary) will be paid back and--because you’re lucky enough to live in a state where National Board Certification is rewarded by a salary incentive--you’ll get a $2500 annual bonus for 10 years. You may actually be able to replace your 10-year old car.

You’re not the kind of person to rest on your laurels, however. You’re already looking around for the next challenge in your personal pursuit of excellence when you read these stories:

From Florida: Districts would have to deny teachers raises or let them go, based on student performance on standardized tests -- even if principals found the teacher to be effective. The Senate bill also would eliminate step raises based on years worked or degrees earned, including masters degrees and National Board Certification.

From Michigan: Some of the best education leaders today are business executives who have traded their places in boardrooms for a chance at leading central offices and steering school systems toward achievement. Others are entrepreneurial nonprofit executives who know well how to maximize every last dollar in a tight budget. Some have never taught. Again, that’s fine -- and in fact, often preferable.

From the University of Wisconsin: As the campus campaign coordinator for Teach For America at UW-Madison, I’m especially excited that 350 students applied from our institution alone. I’m troubled by a new federal budget proposal that would dim future admissions prospects for college seniors. This year, Teach For America requested $50 million from Congress to meet demand among college students and communities. Without federal funding, Teach For America would be unable to hire more than 1,350 teachers who would reach 86,000 students in the 2011-12 school year. We need programs like Teach For America to increase educational opportunity in our public schools.

You do the math. Teach for America needs $50 million--to hire 1350 teachers? That’s $37,000 per (inexperienced, untrained) teacher. You wonder precisely whose educational opportunities are being threatened.

How does it feel to have your profession and classroom become society’s laboratory, subject to overhaul at every election cycle?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.