'When I Grow Up, I Don't Think I Want To Be a Teacher ... '
"This paradox of getting more done by freeing up teachers to decide what they will do, rather than putting pressure on them to perform, is based on a universal human truth. Leadership which taps the creativity of those who are at the center of the project, whatever it is, will always do better than leadership that uses its authority."
--Harold Howe II
When I began my teaching career in the late 1960s, I found many opportunities for learning, innovation, and creativity. As a teacher, I felt like a critical person in the life of the school and believed that I made a difference, that my teaching would, in some significant ways, change students' lives. I worked in a school where we regularly asked ourselves: What am I choosing to teach and why? To what end? How will I know I have succeeded?
My school doesn't need to be romanticized. It wasn't a "collaborative community." There wasn't coherence across the entire curriculum for 2,800 students; some received a better education than others. But we as a faculty were working toward more-effective schooling. We held ourselves accountable--to each other and to our students. Our conversations were about teaching--content, pedagogy, assessment--and were often heated and intense. For the last 10 years of my teaching career, I never taught alone. I team-taught in a variety of different configurations that allowed me a stream of feedback about my own teaching and the chance to create exciting curriculum and programs for students. I was never under the illusion that teachers were revered--I just looked at my paycheck--but I did feel that the community was entrusting the education of its children to those of us who had made the commitment and fulfilled the requirements to teach.
Things have changed. Who wants to teach now? The shortage is such that each year our schools have to hire 50,000 "teachers" who are not fully trained or certified for the jobs they are filling. For my part, I find it harder and harder to convince bright young people to consider teaching as a career. Applications at some of our elite teacher-training programs are down. Prospective teachers are reading the newspapers carefully. They are listening to state and federal policymakers--and to the president of the United States. They get the drift.
The drift is that we've given up on teachers. We have decided that they no longer have the wherewithal to determine curriculum and programs, let alone their own professional development. They can't imagine high standards that challenge all students. They have little, if any, grasp of subject matter. We have determined that they must be given highly structured, carefully scripted materials (presented in mandated workshops), which they take back to their classrooms and implement according to specific guidelines. Districts pay large sums of money for school and classroom "designs" that dictate the scope and sequence of programs and curriculum and that make clear claims to raise test scores. Thomas Sergiovanni must have been way off base when he wrote in Moral Leadership: "Like other professionals, teachers cannot become effective by following scripts. Instead, they need to create knowledge in use as they practice ... knowledge does not exist apart from teacher and context."
We're sending a message: Teachers don't need to ask hard questions about their own work, or learn from each other in their own school community, or continuously raise the stakes for themselves. In fact, they need not be learners, merely followers. The conversation in many schools is no longer about the best way to teach writing in 3rd grade, or how to present thoughtful dilemmas in high school history, or ways to connect science to local environmental issues. Instead, the conversation, if there is one, revolves around which goal--linked to which academic standards, linked to which mandated frameworks--you are teaching this week and how you will prepare your students for the next set of high-stakes, standardized tests. If you teach 6th grade mathematics in Illinois, you are faced with five goals, 19 standards, and 84 frameworks--and that's only in mathematics, and does not include the district or individual school standards.
Many policymakers and legislators seem to agree that teachers do not hold themselves to high standards and are to blame for our educational failures. They have decided that others, who work and live outside of schools and presumably have much higher expectations, will tell those who work in schools what the standards, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments must be. They want teachers to become technicians who will be able to follow directions very well. They assume that this will improve students' scores on standardized tests. Teachers who find themselves in schools where students still don't score well will be asked to leave. Governors and state officials routinely threaten to close schools or take them over if student scores don't improve significantly. Close the school. Let the state take over. Remove the faculty. Then what? Will hordes of talented people be waiting in line to fill the openings?
|If teachers aren't continuously jump-starting the intellectual stimulation and challenge within a school, who will?|
My questions: Who, particularly among our best and brightest, would want to become a technician in such a field--following frameworks that are the antithesis of the higher-order reasoning we claim we want all students to master? How are educators to teach students to problem-solve and to address complicated questions, when they themselves must concentrate on mandated texts and tests? "A truly professional teacher," as Harold Howe II noted in these pages some years ago, "does not want to be told what or how to teach. Making decisions on such matters is the essence of academic freedom that accompanies professional standing." ("The 'Systemic' Epidemic," July 13, 1994.) As we strip teaching of its professional potential, we need to ask: Where will our next generation of teachers come from? Will they come at all? How will we attract a new generation of top-notch teachers for the new millennium?
One answer would be to return to Mr. Howe's "universal truth." In all the rhetoric about high expectations, rigorous curriculum, and skillful pedagogy, we have forgotten to ask counsel from the adults at the "center of the project," those who teach our children every day. We have diminished, rather than heightened, their voice in helping to solve the complex dilemmas before us. Listening would be enlightening.
Here is the sort of thing we might hear. When Boston recently studied three of its highest-scoring elementary schools, it became clear that they were all "determined to get away from traditional grill-and-drill teaching," as the Boston Globe reported, and that in all three schools time is set aside for teachers to talk and plan together, to integrate curriculum, and to discuss student work. This is one lesson from the field. There are many more, and there is growing research by Fred Newmann and others that highlights the impact on student outcomes of building professional community among educators. Paul Hill and Mary Beth Celio, in Fixing Urban Schools, argue that effective schools "arise from interaction of ideas about instruction and from hard, collaborative work among teachers."
If teachers aren't continuously jump-starting the intellectual stimulation and challenge within a school, who will? If the adults are not treated as professionals and as learners, what hope is there for the children? Standards are important; curriculum is important. But without teachers who think critically about teaching and learning and about the students--one by one--in their schools, we will never encourage the caliber of people we need to join us and will never reach the goals we proclaim.
Paula M. Evans is the director of professional development at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I.