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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

Why the Teaching Profession Matters More Than Ever

By Guest Blogger — August 07, 2019 5 min read
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Heather Harding is director of policy and public understanding at the Charles Schusterman Family Foundation. Heather began her career in education with Teach For America, starting as a teacher before working her way up to senior leadership. Heather will talk about her experience as an education reformer and charter school parent, and why she’s found herself evolving into a reform moderate and an accountability hawk.

A few weeks ago, I spent a week in Aspen talking with a group of educators, policymakers, and legislators about developing a richer vision of teaching post-walkouts and strikes. I was eager to attend the meeting to discuss what I feel is the important topic of teacher professionalism because for a while now I’ve been pondering why we fail—as a sector—to garner the public will for the policy and resources we need most.

A couple of assumptions to start: While teaching is still in the top 10 of highly regarded professions, parents have stopped encouraging their children to become teachers and enrollment in teacher education programs has declined in the last decade. Public sympathies were largely on the side of teachers during the walkouts; people can see the reality that educators are not afforded the resources to do their jobs and have little autonomy. What they cannot see is the invisible demands on teaching. This moment could provide an opportunity for us to make the case for the real truth: Teaching is a complex and intellectually demanding task; and managing schools and creating a school culture that nurtures real learning requires intellectual and emotional intelligence beyond the current public imagination.

So much of the work of a great teacher isn’t readily observable; even students—who are the beneficiaries of the hundred little decisions necessary for delivering instruction—can’t see the work of a master teacher. Sure they ‘feel’ the impact and absorb the benefit of great teaching but this very magical feat translates into a public image of teachers as caretakers instead of highly skilled facilitators of knowledge and engagement. Teaching is so much more complex than we acknowledge. Teaching well requires teachers to know their content, understand the specific content pedagogy to plan and direct learning, and then to develop positive and lasting relationships with students. Teaching well over time is best supported by a competent and knowledgeable principal who sets the conditions in a building. Principals act as the conductor, coach, and counselor of teachers in their buildings and because teaching is a social act—context always matters.

Over the last few decades, the definition of great teaching has been upended by efforts to build and improve our systems of accountability. Unfortunately, many of the consequences fell on the backs of individual teachers. Suffice it to say, reform got it wrong on teacher evaluation in a way that failed to acknowledge the complexity of the work while alienating the actual asset in the system: capable, committed adults. While it’s hard to deny the very big hangover that teacher evaluation left in the wake of Race to the Top and other reforms, many in the field are talking about teachers. But much of that talk centers on compensation and pension reforms. The easiest answer is more pay and while I wouldn’t argue this point, I also believe that policymakers should dig in on the funding formulas that fail to reward the skill and work of individual teachers. Even in the face of relatively low public will to spend more on education, we have to build a case for public resources that invest in great teachers and their ongoing development. The return on investment is that schools can be places that prepare students for citizenship, work, and a happy and productive life. In this way educators are the nation builders we need—especially in today’s climate.

Current teacher policy talk tends to center on issues of racial diversity; and again, while I’m supportive of creating pipelines for teachers of color to enter and stay in the profession—I think it’s time to dig in on the adult identity issues that have been major stumbling blocks to meeting the demands of a successful teaching career. Educators today can only provide masterful instruction if they understand the dynamic domains of academics, social emotional competency, and college and career readiness.

Human capital reforms were focused on the individual teacher—who is the smartest, who is the most talented—and they led to a theory that if we let the best among us fly then they will single handedly improve student outcomes. Teacher quality now must be about social capital approaches that assume that individual teachers enter the profession with the requisite knowledge and skills to provide high quality instruction on day one, but continue to hone and develop throughout their careers by continuously learning from and with peers. Further, teachers can and should be supported to take on specialized and leadership roles that capitalize on the varied and different learning experiences they’ve participated in. Over time, teachers develop skills working with particular student populations, specific subject areas, and distinct grade levels. What a teacher learns over time about families, communities, colleagues is of great value.

During our time together in Aspen, it was noted that educators as a group don’t always have access to the markers of success—money, power, and respect. The truth of the matter is far more complicated because the education system is teeming with money and resources—and while we may need more for supports, and under served populations, our first order problem in K-12 funding should focus on getting those dollars into supporting building-level educators. As for power, there is little doubt that we all have an individual educator in our memory who shaped us and propelled us to success. Teachers and teaching are infinitely powerful and we need to take our case to the public in ways that are accurate and compelling. And finally, respect often follows the first two. Self-determined, high performing educators must lead the charge in building a stronger narrative about teaching and developing better education policy.

Heather Harding

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.

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