While most Americans – if not all – can name a teacher that had a significant impact on their lives, the current, national perception towards teachers does not appear to reflect that personal affinity towards a great teacher. Why is that? Why is it that most of us can name a great teacher (or several) who pushed us, nurtured us, encouraged us; but when we talk about the profession, we conclude there is a lot to be desired. I would contend that the answer is simple: there are far too many teachers who do not have a significant impact on the lives of students, at least not in a positive way. Furthermore, this country has not developed credible and efficient systems – federal, state, district, or school-based – that develop struggling teachers or evaluate them out at the scale needed. So, you may ask what does teacher voice / professionalism have to do with addressing these challenges. I argue it has everything to do with it.
As with any profession, those in the profession (teachers and school leaders) must play a significant role in making the necessary changes to improve teaching and learning in classrooms. This is critical if the changes in the profession are going to be sustained over time. This is not to suggest that those in the profession must be the catalyst for those significant changes. Sometimes it takes someone from outside the profession to shed light on what needs to change within. Such was the case with the medical profession back in 1910. Abraham Flexner – who was not a trained physician but an educator – published the Flexner Report. In the report he criticized the way that medical schools operated. According to Flexner, the standards for acceptance to medical schools were too low, the courses were not rigorous enough, and graduation was too easy. Sound familiar? This report catalyzed the Nation’s medical schools to change, and they have not been the same ever since. Yet, despite Flexner’s outsider perspective, I am sure it took the voices and actions of many insiders to ensure that those higher standards persist today. A similar argument can be made with the teaching profession today.
I think it is safe to say that most of the recent, proposed reforms to the teaching profession have come from outside the profession. The Flexner example would suggest that this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, as these proposals take shape, it is important to lift up the voices of teachers. Doing so could have three major benefits. First, as we give teachers an opportunity to engage and help shape the reform, I am sure that we will find that there are many teachers who are and have been advocates of these reforms all along. We are already seeing this in the numbers of partner, teacher organizations that are on the rise like TeachPlus and Educators for Excellence. These groups are made up of teachers who simply did not have the voice to push for change from within. But now they do. This leads to the second possible benefit: teachers as leaders of the reform. This may not be a complicated as it might seem. Think about all the teachers who are currently involved in the MET project, or the teachers who are involved in developing and using new rubrics in the IPS/APS sites, or the teachers involved in shaping and using the College Ready literacy and math tools. What if we found a way for them to be as versed as we are in those tools, and then allowed them to message alongside us to their peers…the Nation? I know it is idealistic, but this would not be the first time that I was accused of being an idealist.
The final benefit has to do with feedback. The more we engage teachers in these conversations, the more likely we will create a feedback loop for learning how these reforms play out in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. Going back to the Flexner Report; it would have been ludicrous for Flexner to believe that he did not need to hear back from practicing physicians regarding his suggestions and recommendations. This feedback from the practicing physicians most likely provided guidance for where more support and push were needed during the change process. At the same time, hearing back did not mean lowering Flexner’s standards or recommendations. As those reforms played-out and more lives were saved, Flexner made believers out of those within and outside the profession. I believe the same thing can happen with the teacher profession. As the teacher reform efforts play-out in collaboration with teachers, and these efforts result in significant increases in students achieving college and career readiness; then teachers will become true believers and leaders in the work. Perhaps then Americans will revere the teaching profession beyond the individual teacher who impacted them personally.