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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Teacher With a Thousand Faces

By Guest Blogger — February 04, 2014 4 min read
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Note: This week and next RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today’s post is from Dave Bosso. Dave is a social studies teacher at Berlin High School in Berlin, CT, and was Connecticut teacher of the year in 2012.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the archetypical protagonist who feels compelled to embark on a quest. Over the course of the journey, there are many challenges, as well as support, assistance, and successes. Ultimately, after enduring and overcoming a supreme ordeal, the hero undergoes a form of resurrection because of the life-changing power of the experience. It is a universal formula for transformative stories across cultures and generations.

As with Campbell’s archetype, teachers are drawn to a special journey. Indeed, most teachers see their job as a calling and they feel a sense of mission in their work. There are many trials and pitfalls, along with enriching experiences of joy and reaffirmation. Unfortunately, many teachers contend with numerous challenges to their profession, and ultimately, to their morale, motivation, and sense of identity. The comparatively low status of the teaching profession is the nemesis to be slain, and teachers are left with minimal power in the confrontation. For many teachers, the next stage of the hero’s epic adventure fails to materialize because they do not possess the proper tools to surmount the many obstacles they face.

Nothing short of a drastic overhaul of societal attitudes toward the purpose of education and the role of teachers will precipitate genuine, enduring educational reform. There are three key ways to engender this revolution. First, an understanding of how morale, motivation, and self-efficacy interact to shape teachers’ professional identities is crucial. The second step is through the emergence of teacher leadership, which derives from, is reflective of, and contributes to, teacher morale, motivation, and efficacy. Lastly, validation and recognition of teachers’ work and efforts can augment teacher efficacy, motivation, and morale, providing the teacher as hero with greater strength to succeed in the struggle and to cultivate teacher leadership. Empowerment, validation, and teacher leadership can be transformational experiences that provide teachers with the leverage and capacity they need to strengthen their collective voice and influence.

Any cultural paradigm shift in this regard necessarily involves movement on the policy front. Perceived attacks on teachers, the bureaucratic and behaviorist approach inherent in aspects of education reform, and low levels of trust in the teaching profession have undermined teacher morale and motivation. Teachers often feel that their professionalism and efficacy--and therefore, their professional identities--have been called into question. In such an atmosphere, teacher leadership has difficulty emerging, and the way forward for the teacher as hero is impeded. When policies, norms, practices, and structures that are genuinely supportive of advancing the teaching profession exist, teacher leadership and growth becomes more of a possibility.

In societies that have made significant educational changes, the professionalization of teaching has been at the center of reform efforts. Among other approaches, trusting teachers’ perspectives and valuing them as professionals have bolstered teacher morale and have enhanced the status of the teaching profession in these nations. Ironically, as much as pundits insist on international comparisons with educational systems like Finland’s and South Korea’s, we have yet to more fully embrace the elevated status of teachers as paramount to educational reform endeavors.

In the United States, the general lack of teacher involvement in policy decisions and disregard for their insight, values, and knowledge reflect the limited professional status of teachers and their constrained sense of autonomy. Conversely, for teacher professionalization to positively evolve, teacher leadership must become a reality, and teachers’ expertise, experiences, and perspectives must be solicited and valued. Teacher organizations such as the National Network of State Teachers of the Year aim to uplift the teaching profession and offer guidance to policymakers and teachers to more fully realize the value of sustainable teacher leadership and professional growth.

In Campbell’s monomyth, failure to overcome the ordeal or to return without a transformational experience dooms the hero to repeat the adventure time and time again. Metaphorically, this sounds remarkably like education reform efforts dating back to the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. We have not made significant changes because we have yet to make teacher professionalization a fundamental priority. Rather than reinforcing intransigent views of the teaching profession reflective of the status quo, a new archetype can emerge. Creating appropriate and meaningful teacher leadership structures, validating and recognizing teachers’ work, and genuinely valuing teachers’ experiences and perspectives will boost teacher morale and motivation, elevate the teaching profession, provide teachers with the necessary means to triumph over current challenges, and truly transform education.

--Dave Bosso

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.