Teaching Profession Opinion

Veteran Teachers: The Linchpin of School Reform

By Denise Glyn Borders — October 08, 2004 8 min read
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Classroom veterans often feel they are viewed as part of the problem rather than valued as part of the solution.

It is often and accurately said that teacher quality is the most important variable affecting student achievement. While headlines regularly document the struggles and successes of new teachers, it is veteran teachers—benefiting from years of experience and expertise—who are in an especially critical position to raise student achievement and help realize the promise of education reform.

Yet veteran teachers often feel they are viewed as part of the problem rather than valued as part of the solution. They face demands in the form of state standards, expectations for engaging and rigorous instructional practices, and the testing provisions and teacher-qualification definitions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Much of the burden of accountability lands squarely on the shoulders of veteran teachers and their students. In many cases, however, they are not fully capturing their own potential to expand the boundaries, quicken the pace, or deepen the effect of instruction through technology and innovation. Too often, teacher-training models and school structures treat classrooms as isolated units, rather than engage teachers in the kind of meaningful collaboration that can benefit their own instruction and that of their colleagues, creating successful communities of practice.

Creating opportunities for collaboration and self-reflection is not always easy. It requires that educators be willing to enlist in one more reform effort, and accept advice from someone who may not be familiar with the circumstances and challenges in a particular classroom.

But to give up on veteran teachers is to undermine, if not eviscerate, the possibilities for reform. In our work at the Academy for Educational Development, we have found that when veteran teachers are at the center of their own transformation and made participants in reform efforts, instead of being portrayed and treated as the objects of reform, good things happen.

Yes, transformation. The first step is for teachers to acknowledge that a transformation in thinking and practice is warranted and essential. The second step is acting on intention, to change thinking, behavior, and practice in the classroom in response to new needs of students and the larger society. This stage involves teachers:

• Holding themselves to higher standards of professionalism and their students to higher expectations;

• Finding their voices to demand support and resources to improve their skills;

• Acknowledging that they were not adequately trained in the disciplines and being receptive to new teaching and strategies;

• Accepting that their students need to be motivated and engaged in deeper ways, including using technology in ways that excite them; and

• Finding strategies to connect learning to students’ day-to-day existence and to their futures.

Through innovations in collaboration, particularly coaching and teaming, self-assessment, and use of technology for increased content knowledge, districts, schools, and administrators can equip experienced teachers to act as agents of improvement in their own classrooms and in their schools.

Teacher involvement in instructional improvement on a schoolwide basis is the primary product of the reform effort known as Middle Start, initiated in 1994 in Michigan by aed, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and other partners, and now a national program. Middle Start is designed to build responsive and equitable learning environments for middle school students. It promotes small learning communities, varied and rigorous instruction, meaningful family and community involvement, and schoolwide reflection and assessment.

A 2001 case study of a Michigan school participating in Middle Start found gains in leadership, professional development, teacher planning, and collaboration. The study also found tangible improvements in the student learning environment—higher test scores, varied instructional strategies, increased inclusion of special education students, and greater academic and social support for students through teaming.

Coaching, interdisciplinary teaming, and differentiated learning improved instruction. Most teachers in the Michigan study, for example, said that teaming had enhanced the cohesiveness and quality of the academic program: “Teachers worked with their colleagues more, which helped them gain better understandings of students’ aptitudes and interests; rethink instructional practices; and provide parents with a holistic picture of student progress and behavior.”

Much of the burden of accountability lands squarely on the shoulders of veteran teachers and their students.

The use of outside coaches to improve teacher practice is having a similar effect in Fairfax County, Va., where a teacher-induction program called Great Beginnings, initiated in 1995, has proved useful for both rookie and veteran teachers. The coaches who assist Fairfax County’s new teachers remain full-time classroom teachers and receive a stipend of from $2,500 to $3,000 a year for their coaching. As a report in the Journal of Staff Development (Fall 2002) showed, experienced teachers benefited in a number of ways from serving as coaches: through greater appreciation for reflective practice, a sense of more effective teaching in their own classrooms, a greater capacity for leadership, a new perspective on their own capabilities, a more positive attitude, and a renewed commitment to teaching.

Coaches offered powerful testimony of the positive effects on their own practices: “I have had to re-examine my teaching practices,” said one. “Why do I do it the way I do?” Another said, “I have found the remarkable enthusiasm of beginning teachers to be contagious.” And one teacher spoke of “the choice between being negative and a complainer . . . or being solution-oriented.”

While talented coaches can strengthen the classroom performance of both veterans and novices, teachers with many years of service are often resistant to such assistance. Comprehensive efforts to transform schools into learning communities that foster self-reflection, analysis, and systematic collaboration across disciplines can help veteran teachers overcome that reluctance.

One example is the School Self-Assessment Project, developed by aed and funded by the Kellogg Foundation. Inspired by a program in Great Britain featuring nationally organized reviews—by teachers and former administrators—of teaching and learning in British schools, this approach helps schools construct, strengthen, and sustain a reflective, collaborative culture designed to improve teaching and learning for all students.

In the process, professional-development workshops help schools develop knowledge and skills in schoolwide goal-setting and the collection and analysis of evidence of progress toward goals that have been set. This evidence includes classroom observations and students’ work samples. An external written review carried out by peers from other schools offers an objective perspective.

A substantial body of research shows that student achievement increases in schools where teachers meet regularly to discuss their teaching and then apply what they have learned. In these schools, reflection on teaching and learning is an ongoing and regular aspect of school life.

The principal of the Butzel Middle School in Detroit described the transformation this way: “We are no longer preoccupied with fighting fires and are focused instead on our core mission: the improvement of teaching and learning.”

A key element of school self- assessment is “distributed leadership,” a concept introduced by Harvard University’s Richard Elmore that speaks to the need to tap a broad range of competencies within a school. By recognizing the potential many teachers have to improve instruction throughout their schools and by building their leadership capacity, the process can give teachers a powerful stake in school reform and a renewed commitment to self-improvement strategies in their own classrooms.

Veteran teachers also can participate in creative collaborations to analyze and learn from student work. New York University professor Joseph McDonald describes, in the October 2002 Phi Delta Kappan, collaborative processes to review student work that help teachers avoid snap judgments about student abilities. At this time of increasingly severe consequences for failure to meet academic standards, such efforts are especially needed. As Mr. McDonald says, they combat “a century’s practice of classifying students on the basis of premature judgments of their incapacities.” Successful veteran teachers can benefit significantly from re-examining how they view and analyze their students’ work.

Today, much of the work students perform has an important dimension that was largely absent when many veteran teachers received their training: technology. As long as large swaths of America’s veteran teachers remain uncomfortable with technology, its potential for broadening students’ knowledge and sharpening their skills will be significantly hindered.

Any serious effort to invest in veteran teachers must include an in-depth technology-training component, with verifiable measures. In this arena, many new teachers are well equipped to mentor their veteran colleagues. That kind of peer-to-peer effort can facilitate collaboration in other areas as well, and help all teachers break free of an isolated teaching model that can stifle innovation and improvement.

We must encourage, and trust, veteran teachers’ voices, provide targeted support for their needs, and recognize their tremendous contribution and potential for change.

Technology can act as a medium for better teaching in another way as well. Online professional development is an increasingly important instrument for upgrading the skills and content knowledge of experienced teachers.

Collaboration, self-reflection, analysis of student work, technology, and deep understanding of content are important instruments for engaging veteran teachers. At the same time, we need a much greater understanding of how to make these methods work most effectively.

Throughout my own career, I have always considered myself a teacher first. My students taught me to be better every year and to always demand more of myself and of them. It is the noblest of professions, and, with all the attention being placed on education today, it is time for teachers to take the lead—to commit—and take action in articulating what they need to perform at their peak and help all the children in their classrooms succeed.

We must encourage, and trust, veteran teachers’ voices, provide targeted support for their needs, and recognize their tremendous contribution and potential for change. Building the capacity of experienced teachers—who teach the vast majority of our students—merits much more emphasis than it has received so far from researchers and policymakers.


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