5 Ways School Districts Can Help Elevate The Teaching Profession

If teachers are the most important adults in the education system, then why aren’t they treated as such? Paul Barnwell suggests five steps for school districts to take in helping to elevate the teaching profession.

Many school district mission statements include the goal that all children are welcome and will learn. Or are prepared for college, citizenship, or careers. Or are given an equal opportunity to thrive. But what if a critical missing link in seeing these ideals come to fruition is more focus on improving the teaching profession in practical and bold ways?

As a 12th year teacher, I’ve been encouraged in seeing opportunities emerge for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom, to virtually collaborate with peers across the globe, and to become policy advocates, among other roles that encompass the inherent complexity in a profession.

To best serve students, it’s time to elevate teaching as a profession. To elevate the profession, school districts need to take meaningful action:

Create Improved Career Pathways

For those who love to teach and seek additional challenges beyond the classroom, there are far more incentives to leave, rather than remain working with kids. Money is certainly a factor. The night and weekend workload. The time crunch when engaging in activity beyond classroom duties. Creating teacherprenuers/hybrid roles is just one way districts can provide more pathways for teachers to lead without leaving. In addition, check out the Iowa Department of Education’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation plan, a more large-scale vision to foster and retain great teachers. The teaching profession–and students–will both be better off when ambitious and effective teachers can be professionally fulfilled while continuing to have direct impact on student learning.

Address Inequity in Teacher Placement/Positions

In large, diverse districts such as my own, Louisville’s Jefferson County Public Schools, the range of teaching positions–and demand/stress levels–is immense. I, for one, had an overwhelmingly difficult first year and nearly exited the profession before getting a sniff of what I could be–and eventually become–as an educator. It’s damaging to teachers and students to impose the same demands on educators who work in our most challenging environments. Unsurprisingly, teacher retention persists as an ongoing issue, especially in districts serving high percentages of underprivileged and struggling students. The bottom line is this: given that teaching students in high-poverty schools is more draining and demanding on multiple levels, districts should differentiate teacher workload in order to better serve teachers–and students.

Embrace Teacher-Led Professional Development

A great pet peeve of many educators is listening to consultants and others who no longer work with students on a daily basis. Fortunately, there are Edcamps, ECET2 conferences, and other valuable teacher-led gatherings, but they often operate outside school district governance and sponsorship. But here’s a synopsis of how the Lexington, MA school system empowered adults in their system to teach and learn from one another. Here in Louisville, we’re launching the JCPS VOICE project and creating virtual learning communities, natural extensions of school-based PLC teams. It will be led by classroom teachers to better connect our vast–but untapped store–of teacher expertise.

Provide More Time For Teachers to Collaborate

I hope that someday we’ll see a paradigm shift from obsessing over more “seat” time for students to embracing the virtues of more peer-time for teachers that is built into the workday. Center for Teaching Quality’s assessment of professional learning systems is a sound primer to understand the value–and different models–when structuring teacher time. The fact that students often achieve at higher levels with less time in class (freeing up more time for teachers to collaborate) is counterintuitive to some. But not to us who work tirelessly with students and long for more paid opportunities to reflect and improve upon our practice with our colleagues. The Rethinking Teacher Time project is also worth a look, an effort by 15 teacher leaders in Kentucky to provide recommendations to administrators and school districts.

Untether Teacher Evaluations From Tests

I continue to strive to become a more effective, fulfilled educator because of opportunities to engage in meaningful collaboration with my peers. I will not strive to become a better educator due to being publicly rated based on student standardized test scores (if it comes to that). Check out the executive summary from the American Educational Research Association about flaws in assessing teachers in this manner. Think Florida teachers are empowered to improve based on situations like this? Not a chance. While teacher evaluation systems are often set at the state policy level, it’d be refreshing to see districts stand up to and oppose counterproductive and demoralizing systems.

Imagining, envisioning, and working to improve school systems in which the teaching profession is elevated to levels it deserves fuels much of my work as a hybrid educator, and I’m optimistic that positive shifts will continue to occur. In what other ways does your school district elevate teaching and teachers?

  • Pat Johnson

    Time, Teacher-led Professional Development, and Improved Career

    Paul, I really enjoyed reading your post. You certainly have some great ideas. If only administration would lend an ear. I've been teaching for over 20 years in various positions and I've always loved my job, exccept for this year…For the first time ever, I'm not enjoying myself because of the high stress, micro-managed environment I find myself in today. It's not just administration or county level stress, but stress from out of touch politicians, the media and even some community members who post absolutely heinous lies on social media. I look back wistfully to the days when I felt I really made a difference in students' lives. However, when I read your ideas about teachers being given more time to address their own professional development, and the creation of improved career pathways, I felt somewhat hopeful that someone, somewhere might be listening. Keep up the rally cry! Thank you.


    • PaulBarnwell

      Pat, thanks for chiming in!,

      Pat, thanks for chiming in!, and I hope you will share these ideas with folks who may be receptive. I wish I could confidently advocate for college students to enter the teaching profession, but until we see some meaningful reforms, I am hesistant. Good thing there is momentum in some places where the powers that be understand that students will only suceed if adults are given conditions to succeed.  

  • MaryBethGley

    Paul, I too, enjoyed reading

    Paul, I too, enjoyed reading your post. Your last point, to untether teacher evaluations from tests, I believe is the most important one because it highlights the disturbing trend prevailing across the US. Despite all the research that has been conducted, state governments continue to enact laws that tie student test scores to teacher evaluations. The link you share about the state of Florida is mind-boggling! How can a rational person even consider data worthwhile that has a 50% deviation?
    As educators, I believe it is our duty to speak up. Speak up to our neighbors, our friends, our families. Hopefully they will see the nonsense being perpetuated and help enact change.

  • KimGwizdala


    Your post highlights some of the greatest areas of challenge and potential that teachers face. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful ideas.

    In my own state, the concept of a teacher leader in a formal sense (through certification) is so new that many in our own district administration don’t know what to make of it. Your first point speaks to this as you offer new and creative configurations that would allow a teacher to continue in the classroom. I, too, have been fascinated by Iowa’s initiatives with teacher leadership. Hopefully I’ll see some of these new options in my district one day.

    I’m also intrigued by your proposal to address the inequalities in placement and position. Regardless of the school, teachers’ workloads vary greatly. My years in where I teach 150 AP students are just so different from the years in where some of those classes are replaced with speech elective courses in where the classes only have 19 students in them. Most schools treat this just as the luck of the draw. While I agree that these issues need to be addressed in order to respond to the inequities in workload, I’m just not sure what districts could do about it. It almost seems that it is a contractual issue. You’ve inspired me to seek out districts that may be attempting this important but complicated issue.