Teaching Profession

Showing Your Work: How to Change the Public Image of Teaching

October 03, 2012 7 min read
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Ever tire of the portrayal of teaching as a “part-time job"—or of the stereotype of the heroic teacher who swoops in to save the day? Do ill-informed, broadstroked criticisms of “public school teachers” really get your goat?

You’re not alone. Five teachers (and many insightful commenters) spent a couple of weeks dissecting the teaching profession’s image problem—and identifying some solutions—over on Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable. Here are some takeaways:

Remember: ‘People don’t know what they don’t know.’

That’s how Sarah Brown Wessling (2010 National Teacher of the Year) described the problem. “Teachers must be able to expose all the ‘invisible’ work we do. … And unless we continue to find ways to turn the isolated nature of our schools inside out, teachers will be doomed to misperception and misunderstanding.”

Others agreed, pointing out that many people make assumptions about teaching and teachers based on their own experiences in school, which may have occurred decades ago. Lauren Hill commented, “We’ve all been to school, so we all think we know exactly what it is like.”

Commenter Urban Teacher reflected, “When parents spend a day in my class and actually experience all that goes on in a short period of time, I often hear ‘How do you do this everyday?’ If we open the doors to our classrooms, maybe, just maybe, those not in public education might get a true glimpse of the complexity of our profession.”

Show the work.

Even those who witness teaching in action may not grasp the nuances of what they see. That’s why commenter Lauren Hill said teachers “need to show our work.”

As Megan Allen (2009 Florida Teacher of the Year) commented, “There is so much skill and thought behind each move a teacher makes, even when it looks effortless. The fact that it appears effortless is even evidence of a teacher’s reflection, professionalism, and hard work.”

Reflecting on the “Teaching is a Work of Heart” plaque in her classroom, National Board-certified teacher Ali Crowley noted, “I am a better teacher now than I was my first year of teaching. Hint: It’s not because my heart has gotten bigger. It’s because I’ve developed my expertise over time—collaborating with colleagues, attending conferences, observing other teachers, reflecting on my practice and working with students who challenge me.”

A lot of parents are impressed by classroom management, but as Arizona teacher Sandy Merz commented, “It’s no trick to keep a class quiet if all you want is quiet. What’s not a trick, but expertise of the highest order, is when a teacher provides channels though which students can express themselves energetically and be absorbing content along the way.”

How to “show the work”? Lauren thinks technology may help make teaching more transparent. Sandy added that he’s going to make better use of his faculty page to “include links to research I’m reading, trainings I’m attending, and explanations of how my lessons are based on the most current research.” Blogs, social media posts, and videos can also enable teachers to open their classrooms while also shedding light on the decision-making that happens behind the scenes.

Have a plan for answering the “what-do-you-do” question.

Even casual conversation can change perceptions.

Next time you fly and a talkative seatmate asks what you do for a living, consider it an opportunity to teach, advised Sandy, sharing one approach.

Sandy commented on another post that there are other constructive approaches as well. For example, the “what subject and grade?” question is likely to come up in even brief conversations with new acquaintances. Share your subject and grade, he suggested, but also mention your specialties: working with English-language learners, preparing students to take Advanced Placement classes, using Singapore math strategies, etc. This information will deepen the conversation.

Create meaningful connections with the community.

“I think so many members of the public would love to share their energy and experience and talents with the school,” Sandy observed. “The challenge is to find a socket for them to connect with.”

But it’s possible.

David Cohen’s students have led two community book discussions in the past three years, demonstrating their own learning and leadership to friends and family members.

David often invites guest speakers from the community to visit with his classes: “These talks help my students see different points of view relating to our curriculum, help me assess students’ listening skills, and have the added benefit of letting community members see what’s happening in schools.”

Transform students’ perceptions of teachers and teaching.

“Students watch us, want to know about us, and want to know why we teach,” wrote Sandy. “To me, that means that how I represent the profession in my daily practice will greatly influence my students’ future perception of teachers—even more than the media and our elected officials.”

Sandy noted that this can affect how he answers students’ questions about his job. But he presents another, more proactive idea as well: “One concrete way to reveal the complexities of our craft, while authentically teaching the content of our subjects, would be to let a class participate in planning a unit.”

Commenter Justin Minkel added, “I saw some data recently that while most teachers say they enjoy their jobs, most students don’t perceive that we do. I think you’re right that it’s critical for us to convey why we love this work—as much to remind ourselves as to communicate that message to our students, their parents, and the public at large.”

Become your own publicist.

Or, as Megan put it, stop being modest. “This is a tough one. It’s in our nature to focus on the students and not ourselves. We create fun and engaging lessons so students have powerful learning experiences, not so we can have attention. However, if we want to educate the public about the amazing things happening in our school, we can’t be shy. Call the local paper or news station the next time you have an exciting project or lesson that you’d like to share.”

David said he wishes more teachers would push past that reluctance to share: “Keep the focus on school and students. Overcoming that reluctance is a positive contribution you can make to your own development—and our profession. It’s an opportunity to model for students how we push ourselves to take some risks and stretch beyond our comfort zones.”

Engage with and elevate your professional peers.

Diagnosing teaching as a “shy profession,” Megan wondered how teachers can “change the way we are so timid to air our successes": “I think one way to help is to highlight the successes and greatness of our peers and colleagues. We need to be vocal for each other as we help build each other up.”

David emphasized that there is power in numbers: “We are millions; it’s not enough to settle for collaboration within schools or districts. Join professional organizations and associations. Participate in unions at the local, state, or national level. Pursue your National Board Certification, and encourage others to do the same. Build up your professional learning networks, locally, nationally, even globally—perhaps with Twitter chats like #edchat and #teaching2030.”

Seek out policymakers.

David commented on his own experiences with school board members and state legislators: “Most of the leaders I’ve met are truly interested in learning more about the situation ‘on the ground’ in schools and classrooms. That doesn’t mean we always agree about the best direction for policy, but the disagreements usually stay civil and pleasant. … It’s worth seeking out opportunities to engage with policymakers, and not too difficult if you stay open, positive, grounded in school practices and experiences, and solution-oriented.”

Saying or doing nothing at all can be just as political as lobbying Congress, Sarah noted: “So, perhaps the discussion isn’t always about cultivating teacher voice, but about realizing that we’re always using it, always sending a message, and sometimes a quiet voice makes the loudest statement.” In other words, silence can be interpreted as agreement.

Start small—but start!

Sarah expressed hope that more in the profession will begin to take first steps: “Sometimes I think teachers are so worried about getting it ’just right’ that they shy away from their potential first steps; something as innocuous as talking to the neighbors about education. Baby steps. First steps. All steps. They make a difference!”

Have you been trying any of these strategies? Do you have other ideas about changing how the profession is viewed? We hope you’ll share your perspective—this is one conversation that has only just begun.

—Braden Welborn


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