Education Opinion

What Do They Take When They Walk Away?

By Susan Graham — June 24, 2010 3 min read
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Tuesday our faculty celebrated the retirement of two teachers. Together they represent 75 years of teaching. They worked their way through two buildings, three principals, and five superintendents. It was bittersweet for them and for the rest of us who have learned from and with them over the years.

In The Washington Post, I read the story of Mrs. Chapman’s retirement. Former students

..marched past her like Olympic athletes, holding up signs. Each sign showed the year that Mrs. Chapman taught them and, for many, became their "one" -- you know, that one teacher who stands out, who made that tectonic difference in your life, whose grammar school mantras still echo in your head.

What made Mrs. Chapman so special?

For 22 years, pre-kindergartners and kindergartners in Mrs. Chapman's urban Washington class have been raising finches, dissecting pellets of owl vomit filled with bones of rodents (she buys these online), hatching chicken eggs, camping in the woods, and writing, illustrating, narrating and then acting out books and stories.

But Mrs. Chapman won’t be doing that any more and my colleagues won’t be firmly but gently “herding cats” as we say in middle school. Our schools are facing the loss of many Mrs. Chapmans because a lot of us are getting older. Schools face a deluge of retirements in the next five years. But the problem is exacerbated by a growing sense that many teachers find their work less rewarding. In the last year, for the first time, I am hearing a new kind of conversation among good teachers. They are talking about how many years left until retirement. And too often, they are looking for an exit plan long before many of them expected to retire because as Diane Ratvich explains

Teachers -- not just union leaders -- are unhappy, frustrated, and demoralized. So are parents, because they don't like the high-stakes testing regime either. They don't like that their children are losing time for the arts, science, history, geography, physical education, foreign languages, and everything that is not tested. They may not be well-informed, yet they know that their children are missing out on a good education.

But here’s the thing--- many teachers are extremely well informed. They are the keepers of the institutional knowledge of teaching. The business term for that is knowledge capital and I found this very MBA definition.

Knowledge capital: Know-how that results from the experience, information, knowledge, learning, and skills of the employees of an organization. Of all the factors of production, knowledge capital creates the longest lasting competitive advantage. It may consist entirely of technical information (as in chemical and electronics industries) or may reside in the actual experience or skills acquired by the individuals (as in construction and steel industries). Knowledge capital is an essential component of human capital.

Malcolm Galdwell popularized Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 Hour Rule in his book, Outliers. The rule, in simple terms, says it takes 10,000 hours of of committed, sustained practice to become an expert at anything. So, if a teacher works seven hours a day for 200 days a year, it would take about seven years to become a true expert. Unfortunately, we lose over half of our teachers before they hit the five year mark. This is what I don’t understand: If economist-education policymakers say they are serious about using business management skills to improve our public schools, why is there so little emphasis on accessing the treasure of expertise of that teachers like Mrs. Chapman possess.

When she's with the kids, she is like a patient gardener who senses that golden moment when a child is about to blossom. She is the master of the vastly overlooked power of restraint.

Maybe patience and restraint are a big part of what Mrs. Chapman knows that education policymakers haven’t figured out yet. It could be that while they are experts in data collection and disaggregation,they haven’t spent enough time at school to master how learning is actually produced. Their intentions are good, but they’ve lost sight of the objective of school. Seduced by the data that was intended to be an indicator in the process of learning, they have forgotten that it’s a just a production tool, not the product. Data can’t produce learning because learning is something that must be nurtured child by child. Mrs. Chapman models her expertise when

Mrs. Chapman listens.
Mrs. Chapman waits.
Mrs. Chapmam is more interested in the children than the grownups.

As a teacher, I can’t help but wonder how much more progress we’d make if policymakers spent more time doing what Mrs. Chapman has done quietly and effectively for all these years. We have some brilliant people engaged in education policy. But when it came to education their own child, I’ll bet most parents would trust Mrs. Chapman’s ground level knowledge over the theories of an education theorist. They must know what researchers have discovered; it doesn’t take genius to be a great teacher, it takes 10,000 hours with children.

Not all teachers are masters of their craft, but there are thousands of us out here who have put in the concerted practice and work to become expert teachers. Within the next five years, a great many of those teacher experts, who are now in their 50s or 60s, will be walking away and taking a fortune of human capital with us---not because we are unwilling to share it, but because policymakers seem uninterested or unwilling to utilize the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we have invested our whole careers in acquiring.

Mrs. Chapman is “still attending workshops for teachers this summer because she can’t let go.” What a loss that no one has bothered to ask her to stay and advise. If they asked her nicely, I’ll bet she’d share what she learned and how she has field tested that learning. You’d think a bunch of economists would know better than to let that kind of knowledge capital just walk away.

Image: Courtesy of Thekidds@flickr

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