The Empowerment of Teachers

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Reform proposals that ignore the central role of teachers are doomed to failure, argues Gene I. Maeroff in his forthcoming book, The Empowerment of Teachers: Overcoming the Crisis of Confidence.

Mr. Maeroff bases his conclusion on an analysis of the Rockefeller Foundation's Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching program. Known as CHART, the program comprises a network of locally based projects intended to provide training, incentives, and other professional opportunities for humanities teachers.

In the following excerpts, the author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, outlines the problems faced by teachers and suggests strategies for empowerment.

Teachers find themselves assigned one of the most difficult tasks a society can give, and yet they do not feel they have the authority to do what is expected of them or the recognition that they think the job ought to carry. At a time when a powerful school-reform movement is sweeping across America, not enough is being done to address the needs of teachers, the group upon whom change is most dependent.

If elementary and secondary education in America improves, it will be, more than anything else, because of the part teachers play. Nonetheless, the teacher's role is often ignored in the recommendations for improving schools.

Giving teachers greater power is a major way to make them more professional and to improve their performance. Professionals usually have a sense of authority about what they do and are recognized as experts in their fields. They feel good about themselves and are respected by others. The empowerment of teachers has to do with their individual deportment, not their ability to boss others.

... Empowerment, as viewed in this book, is a term somewhat synonymous with professionalization. ... [M]ore than anything else, it means working in an environment in which a teacher acts as a professional and is treated as a professional. ... Toward that end, there are three guiding principles:

  • Boosting status is fundamental to the process because, simply put, those who have lost the will are not likely to find the way. Teachers themselves make it abundantly clear that the ability to look at themselves and their colleagues through new eyes has liberated them from the self-imposed shackles of low esteem.
  • Making teachers more knowledgeable is an obvious step in enhancing their power. ... Part of the reason why teachers have not exerted more authority is that they are not sufficiently well informed to do so. A teacher not versed in history must assuredly depend on others to supply a curriculum for a history course. A teacher intimidated by mathematics is not likely to be able to critique a textbook. Teachers shaky in their academic and pedagogical backgrounds must repeatedly defer to the judgments of supervisors, who are given the time to be the supposed experts.
  • Finally, allowing teachers access to the lofty towers of power means building psychological ladders they may climb to escape their isolation and gain the overview that few of them usually attain. It also means connecting teachers with each other and with principals, building a kind of collegiality that has been all too unusual in elementary and secondary schools.

... [R]ather than trying to alter the situation from within, change might be promoted more effectively from the outside. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, set out to implement its [CHART] program by working--in most cases--through outside agencies with links to the schools, instead of dealing directly or solely with school systems. The outside organization, or so-called local education fund, is usually beyond the day-to-day control of the school system, giving it independence and flexibility. It has the ability to work around bureaucratic obstacles.

Any effort to upgrade teaching must begin with improving the circumstances of teachers so that they can feel better about themselves and what they do for a living. Money is mentioned most frequently in such discussions, and it is not an insignificant factor in boosting teacher morale. But the working conditions that lead teachers to the depths of despair are no less important. Enhancing their status is a first step toward empowerment because as long as teachers are undervalued by themselves and others, they are not likely to feel they have much power. ...

The sad fact is that for most of its practitioners teaching is an occupation with few amenities. Just giving teachers business cards to hand out was enough to win good will for one of the programs of CHART. With that one act--something taken for granted by most professionals--the program conferred a kind of dignity that the teachers never before had enjoyed...

While professionals in other fields are used to being treated to lunch and taking others to lunch, teachers hardly ever get so much as a free cup of coffee. Expense accounts are the exotica of another planet. Teachers in New York City even have to punch time clocks as if they worked on an assembly line in a factory. In Chicago, where there are no time clocks, they sign in and out in log books in the school's main office, a procedure not unusual around the country.

On top of other indignities, teachers are infantilized, transformed into adult workers who sometimes have an almost parent-child relationship with their principals. ... Such treatment of teachers runs counter to what psychologists say is an important component of good mental health, namely, the sense of being in control of one's destiny. ...

[I]solation ... is a main problem in schoolteaching. Many teachers work an entire day without contact with a colleague except over lunch, which often turns out to be the only setting in which pent-up frustrations can be vented.

... Dale Mann, a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University, suggests that teacher morale could be raised and isolation diminished simply by installing a telephone in each teacher's classroom, an idea so fundamental and practical that almost no school district has tried it. Imagine a teacher who is trying a new approach being able to ring up a colleague and ask for a moment of advice.

Teachers, separated as they are in their classrooms, normally have little time to share and compare ideas. Professional growth is bound to be impaired in a setting where practitioners ... do not see their colleagues practice their profession and hardly ever teach each other techniques. What a difference, for example, from a team of lawyers who prepare a case together or a group of surgeons who confer about how to handle a medical procedure. ...

The extent of the division among teachers and what can happen when finally they are brought together was illustrated when a team leader of a CHART project in one city approached the program with trepidation because of the composition of his team. It included two teachers from opposite political extremes who often gossiped about each other. But each was hard-working, and they were the first two at the school who, separately, approached him to ask if they could join the team.

"I was worried that having these two on the team would mean that nothing would get done, that we would just have disagreements all the time,'' the team leader said. "But now that they have spent a summer together they are cordial to each other.'

"Each privately told me of the respect he has developed for the other,'' the team leader continued. "This simply doesn't happen in the normal school setting.''

Even the trappings can be used to uplift teachers, as was seen in CHART. Unlike the drab classrooms to which they were accustomed, the sites for conferences and workshops sponsored by CHART often enhanced the teachers' sense of importance. They felt elite and pampered. In Philadelphia, for example, sessions met at such stately places as the Rosenbach Museum and Library, the Independence Hall complex, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania ... .

The transformation in the attitude of teachers was remarkable in one of the more troubled school systems in which CHART operated. People who had despaired suddenly felt hopeful. People whose morale was broken felt somewhat restored. The teachers who developed a new curriculum found an outlet for enthusiasm they did not know was still inside of them. They met daily with fellow teachers, arguing about fine points and finding themselves stimulated by the encounters, after so many years of ennui. And, they thought, if their school system didn't care about what they were doing, at least they knew they cared about each other. ...

Much of the criticism directed at teachers in recent years has been aimed at alleged ineptness, assertions that teachers are ignorant of subject matter and unsuited to impart information to others. The charge is not without basis. Almost every parent seems to have a horror story about a teacher who sends home notes with misspelled words. All too many students have suffered through a year of classes with a teacher who has no business in a classroom.

Strengthening the intellectual and methodological foundation of teachers is one of the most important challenges facing those who want to improve the quality of instruction. Such a change is vital if teaching is to take on a professional aura; for without proficiency at one's craft, there is little hope of exerting authority in the exercise of that craft. ...

A difficulty in equipping someone with the knowledge needed to teach has been that, despite a body of courses that masquerade as the essential core of teacher education, there has been disagreement over the elements of that core. And then, as if to further complicate the dispute, those who complete the teacher-training programs and go out to teach say after a few years that the courses they took in the methods of teaching were largely a waste of time. ...

There are two main ways of retooling and upgrading teachers: inservice instruction and college courses. A third approach, the use of teacher centers, is more recent and still nascent in most places. The fact that the continuing education of teachers persists as a problem shows that none of these methods has proven fully satisfactory.

Inservice education, short-term instruction generally provided at the school itself, is familiar to every teacher, usually in the form of required after-school lectures. Teachers complain that this approach is mechanical and ordinarily deals only with technique, ignoring content. Often, it comes at a point when teachers are so weary they would rather be stretched out on a couch relaxing than sitting upright in a chair trying to concentrate. There is also seldom follow-through to reinforce what was taught. ...

Teachers frequently have higher regard for the courses they take as part-time students at colleges in the evenings, on weekends, and during the summer than they do for the inservice courses given to them by their school systems in their own schools. But the college courses, even at their best, cannot provide teachers with some of the advantages they got from a venture like CHART, which was replete with features usually not offered in connection with a regular college course.

There is not the same satisfaction in enrolling in a college course open to anyone willing to pay the tuition as there is in a program where participants have to be selected. Also, CHART paid stipends to participants, according them the professional recognition to which they were entitled.

Unlike a college course that is fixed in its approach, the content of the seminars and workshops of CHART was shaped to reflect the interests and needs of the participants. Because those in the program were generally all from the same school district and often accompanied by teams representing schools, the experience of camaraderie was quite different from sitting in a class--however good it is--with a diverse group of people who are not colleagues.

In CHART there were, in most cases, both a year-round follow-up after the teacher returned to the classroom and a chance for the teacher to be in the project on an ongoing basis. Teachers have had their fill of one-time fixes, road shows at which the information is heaped on them and then the tent is folded, leaving them with nothing to fall back on as they go off to implement all the wonderful ideas. ...

Teachers are hungry for stimulating educational experiences. In CHART and similar programs, they said they found intellectual exhilaration of the sort they did not think they could still attain.

"Teachers over and over again speak of themselves as 'intellectually starved,' so if you show respect for their minds, they will respond with such enthusiasm that they will knock you down,'' said Judith Hodgson, head of the Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities in the Schools.

This wrestling with ideas that they then pulled into their courses was something that many of the teachers said they never before had experienced in continuing professional education. It shows that the whole approach to inservice education must be overhauled if it is to be effective and if teachers are to be equipped with the knowledge and methods of teaching that make them feel empowered.

Vol. 07, Issue 26, Page 32

Published in Print: March 23, 1988, as The Empowerment of Teachers
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