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Changing the conversation: Too smart NOT to teach

By Roz Byrne

Roz Byrne has dedicated over a decade to the education profession. She currently teaches World Studies to both middle and high school students in Atlanta, GA, where she also serves as the 9th grade dean. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Teacher Leadership through Mount Holyoke College. You can follow her @TheMsByrne.

Previously in this roundtable, Krista Galleberg wrote about how she was once told by her teacher that she was “too smart to teach.” Well I have a confession to make: I’ve been that teacher. Before you stop reading, please let me explain.

Earlier this year I accompanied a group of sixth graders to an early childhood education center in the heart of Atlanta. My students enjoyed working with and reading to these preschoolers. After our trip, I asked my students to share what they had learned from the experience. One of my brightest students, Margaret, raised her hand and shared that this experience made her want to be a teacher when she grows up. While I told her how wonderful I thought that was, in my head I was really thinking, “Oh Margaret, trust me. You don’t want to be a teacher.”

I was troubled by my own thoughts. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been in the education field for over a decade. I understand the frustrations of classroom teaching, but I also know firsthand the joys and triumphs that come in this rewarding and important profession. Even on my worst days I still love and value what I do.

Why would I ever want to discourage an eager student from pursuing a similar path?   

The truth is that even though I value my profession, I believe that American society in general does not. Despite the annual praise of educators during Teacher Appreciation Week, claims that we are valued professionals often feel empty. I’ve had to defend both my intelligence and my career choice a number of times over the last decade. And I’m not alone. Only 34% of teachers believe teaching is valued by U.S. society.

Unfortunately, because of poor societal value, many high achieving students like Margaret, despite their early intentions, will not pursue teaching. A recent study by the Learning Policy Institute found that enrollment in teacher-preparation programs dropped 35% between 2009 and 2014, leaving 250,000 teacher vacancies to fill each year. It is becoming harder for teacher-preparation programs to compete with more seemingly prestigious professions that can offer better career diversification and higher salaries.

This is why we need to change the conversation about teaching. Research shows that high quality teacher collaboration helps improve student achievement. Using that model, perhaps American educators can work with and look toward global education leaders for solutions on how to raise the value of teachers in our society and solve the teacher shortage challenge.  

Global Examples

The United Kingdom addressed their teacher shortage crisis by creating a major campaign that rebranded the teaching profession and improved the status of British teachers. The government also put a substantial amount of money into emphasizing the diversity of skills teachers could acquire, and scholarships were provided for teachers who went into education, specifically for candidates in the fields of math or physics.

As explored by Jessica Roberts in her roundtable post, Finland creates a highly competitive teaching program by requiring a research-based masters degree for those entering the teaching field. This also helps to give Finns autonomy in the classroom.

Other leading countries, including Singapore and Canada, are able to attract and retain strong teachers by making their careers more sustainable. While proper compensation is always a struggle, these leading countries provide teachers with career diversification through hybrid roles and schedules that properly balance time in front of students with time for planning and collaboration.

Researchers have noted that collaborative time is an indicator of both job satisfaction and teachers’ belief that their profession is valued in society. American teachers spend more of their time in front of students than their average global counterparts. This means that American teachers have less time for planning, grading, and collaborating.  

Teacher Leader Action Steps

We don’t have time to wait for government leaders to make large-scale legislative changes similar to those in other successful countries. In order to tackle the urgency of teacher recruitment and retention issues, it is up to American teacher leaders to be the agents of change. 

There are many ways educators can take immediate steps to help our profession, including these four strategies:

  1. Valuing current professionals: Before we expect American society to value teachers, teachers need to first feel valued in their own schools. Teacher leaders can help create school cultures where educators feel like valued professionals. This can be done by creating programs that support professional growth and collaboration with colleagues, while also giving experienced teachers more autonomy in the classroom.

  2. Partnering with preservice programs: Teacher leaders can work closely with teacher preparation programs to help mentor student teachers and continue to work with new teachers as they enter the field full-time. As they do in other successful countries, teachers should stay on top of educational research, thus promoting a culture of best practice and ensuring teachers are the go-to experts when it comes to education policy.

  3. Redesigning roles & compensation strategies: Teacher leaders can also make changes in their own communities by working with their schools, districts, and even legislators to implement new compensation strategies or create diversified career paths and hybrid roles to attract and retain strong teachers.  

  4. Reframing the conversation: Finally, and most importantly, teacher leaders should speak intelligently and positively about the profession, especially to non-educators. How we speak about our own profession may have a direct impact on our ability to recruit high-quality teachers and shape how society views teaching.  

We can start by encouraging our own bright students, like Margaret, to join what we know to be a very rewarding career. Just think how different the state of education might be if we told students they were too smart not to become teachers.


Roz’s post is part of CTQ's May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

 

4 Comments

Renee Moore commented on June 19, 2017 at 11:52pm:

Knowing vs. Doing

Thank you, Roz, for sharing your thoughts and experiences in this discussion. We--teachers especially--do need to change the conversation around education and especially the profession. And we are in the best position to do so. Parents, students, and policymakers will listen to us, we have seen evidence of that at the local and national levels. 

I'm struck by how your four action steps have been mentioned by so many others, not only in this roundtable discussion on teacher shortages, but as the logical, most practical response to a number of problems facing education. Furthermore, we've seen and heard many of these suggestions come from teacher leaders, education researchers, even policymakers in different parts of the country. 

So if we know what steps could help us, why aren't those steps being taken in more places more consistently? 

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on June 22, 2017 at 12:22pm:

Learning from global leaders...why all the "Yeah, but..."?

I love the reframing in this post and do feel that the educators of today are in the best position to share/market the benefits of the profession (and the smarts/skills it takes to be successful). 

I've been thinking a lot about our country's seeming resistance to learning from global leaders after reading this and Jessica Robert's post -- so many other countries openly admit and share they learn practices from the U.S. (then refine them and take them to scale) - to Renee's point if we know these things why aren't we doing them to scale?

I've heard lots of gentle resistance from colleagues, particularly when other models like Finland and Singapore are mentioned -- they usually sound like variations of, "Yeah but they are __________ (smaller, less diverse, have less poverty, pay teachers more, etc.)" These are offered up as a rationale for why this "won't work" in the U.S. If we think of change at a national level, these arguments hold some weight - but if we look at what we could accomplish at the state/local level - these rationales fall apart. Why aren't more states or districts taking on systemic change at the local level? What would it take for us to replace the "yeah, buts..." with "How might we start?"  

Tricia Ebner commented on June 25, 2017 at 7:08am:

Starting from the ground up . . .

I love Jessica's question: "How might we start?" It's a great question. My gut response is this: we need to more overtly value each other. I know we do value each other; I see that every day in the way teachers share, collaborate, and partner. But perhaps we need to be more open and public about the wonderful things our colleagues are doing. When we start drawing attention to those in each other, it's going to make others curious, too. I remember how Jeff Charbonneau, National Teacher of the Year a few years ago, suggested we take time each day to point out the wonderful things someone around us is doing. That kind of consistent, positive sharing sends a message, and it's one that has immense potential to grow. What if we all took just five or ten minutes a day to share the awesome work we see around us? 

Krista Galleberg commented on June 25, 2017 at 2:54pm:

Thank you!

Thank you for this post! As you wrote, "How [educators] speak about our own profession may have a direct impact on our ability to recruit high-quality teachers and shape how society views teaching." I can confirm that. For me, as a student and a prospective educator, hearing my educators talk about their profession led to my interest in teaching at a teacher-powered school.

You also wrote, "Unfortunately, because of poor societal value, many high achieving students like Margaret, despite their early intentions, will not pursue teaching." This is absolutely true. Many of my high-achieving peers have already turned away from teaching because of its perceived poor societal value. On the other hand, as a high-achieving student I am pursuing teaching not only in spite of, but BECAUSE of, widespread perceptions of its poor societal value. This may seem counter-intuitive, so let me explain: I believe that becoming a teacher at a teacher powered school will allow me to be part of a successful movement to increase teaching's prestige within the next 50-100 years. This may be my youth, or ego, or ungrounded optimism speaking, but it is precisely this belief - that I can be part of changing the system by becoming a teacher - that motivates me to pursue teaching in spite of and because of its so-called low societal value.

A few years ago I heard a presentation from a world-renowned photojournalist. He explained that anytime there was a natural disaster, or a bombing, or a fire where he was stationed it was his job to run TOWARD the crisis, to document it. I am not trying to imply that the state of the education profession is in crisis; there are many schools, districts and communities in which the profession is very strong and educators are highly respected. I'm merely pointing out that there are some people, like the photojournalist and like myself, who thrive on running toward challenges, including the social undervaluation of the profession of my choice. Therefore, reframing teaching's low social status as a huge growth point - and making leadership in systemic redesign an expected and accessible part of teaching - can actually attract people to the profession, as it does for me.

Finally, I especially appreciated the concrete action items you listed at the end of your post. I look forward to using your post as a jumping off point with my team on campus focused on advancing education equity (www.educationaligned.org). We have been struggling to identify concrete action steps for our group, and your post is helpful food-for-thought. Thank you!

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