Advancing the teaching profession

This post originally published on Ednewscolorado.org.

A few weeks ago, Senator Mike Johnston’s bill — intended to revamp educational licensure in Colorado — was postponed for this legislative session. The Johnston team cites a need for more time due to the complexity of the issue. As a classroom teacher, I could not agree more.

The intention of the drafted bill, which my CTQ-Colorado team had the privilege of reviewing with Senator Johnston’s team multiple times, is to elevate the teaching profession — an admirable yet complex goal.

To be honest, many aspects of the draft concerned me, but I do believe that significant changes can and should be made to our current licensure, teacher preparation, and professional support systems. Here are a few key areas to consider.

Entry into the profession

The first step to elevating our profession is to seek those who have potential not only to teach a specific content, but who recognize that they are working with classrooms full of unique individuals who will make their job complex, challenging and rewarding.

Right now there are 50-some pathways into the teaching profession in Colorado. Those interested in teaching can opt for traditional undergraduate programs, residency programs, national programs such as Teach for America or other alternative pathways. I have worked with teachers who have entered the profession by each of these routes, with varying amounts of subsequent success.

An effective teacher has a balanced combination of characteristics: content knowledge, experience working with students, and awareness of his or her own teaching abilities and areas of growth. But a great deal of research also supports the idea that teacher candidates need support. But for many, the limited training (with little student contact) offered by Teach for America and other programs — sometimes just a few weeks in the summer — just isn’t enough.

We should not eliminate the requirement of teaching-prep programs altogether. Instead, we should focus our energy on improving these programs to ensure that all teachers are prepared for the profession. (Want to learn more? Seventeen teachers from across the country just released a comprehensive report on effective and promising practices in teacher preparation.)

Regardless of a teacher’s chosen preparation pathway, it is essential for all aspiring teachers to meet the same rigorous standards by demonstrating their ability to teach effectively — before taking charge of their own classrooms.

Continued opportunities to learn

But we can’t just provide more up-front support and tighten requirements — we also need to ensure that all teachers have ongoing access to relevant professional learning.

Even after a rigorous preparation program at the University of Colorado in Denver, I faced my first classroom knowing that I still had much to learn. Thankfully, I was not left to my own devices as many first-year teachers are. My school matched me with a 30-year veteran teacher who helped me grow, and I had the continued support of mentor professors who were still actively involved in the K-12 system.

Teachers will back me up on this: we are not finished learning once we’ve “successfully” navigated your first years of teaching. Being good at what we do requires an intricate and constantly changing set of skills — just as is true in other professions.

Unfortunately, what counts as “professional learning” is limited to what a district deems appropriate. Too often, this takes the form of isolated workshops that do not meet our students’ (and our own) diverse needs.

But there are many other possibilities.

Colorado can create professional growth models that pair master teachers with those who can learn from their expertise, and give ample time and space for this to happen. Teachers can observe teaching in action in lab classrooms, or meet regularly to analyze their practice in study groups. Workshops can be led and designed by expert teachers who live and breathe the profession each day.

And what if Colorado disbanded traditional staff development departments? That way, those are charged with coaching and training teachers could work in buildings alongside students and teachers, providing support as needed.

Leadership from within

Staff development isn’t all that needs to be moved into schools and away from central administration. To truly elevate the teaching profession in our state, we must fully realize the concept of teacher leadership, so that teachers help to make the key decisions affecting teaching and learning in our schools.

Senator Johnston and his team laid some groundwork for this in their drafting process, to their credit. Their ideas about career ladders and hybrid teacher leadership roles are innovative—but more importantly, are essential to meet the goals they set forth.

This bill was developed with good intentions, but it is essential that we consider ways to improve the recruitment and support models that currently exist. We have thousands of expert teachers in our state—let’s figure out how to leverage that expertise, advancing the teaching profession for the good of Colorado’s children.

I am grateful that more time has been granted so that we can move from praiseworthy intentions to a complicated set of legislative considerations. I hope that Senator Johnston and his team will continue to collaborate with teachers. We can help to shape a unified vision for how to improve the realities that Colorado’s students and teachers experience each day.