Differentiated professional pathways: The argument I would have made at NBC’s teacher town hall

After witnessing in person NBC’s Teacher Town Hall session and then watching the panels of “experts” that met over the next few days, I believe there is an important argument that was mostly missing from the entire event.  It is an argument that my colleagues and I who co-wrote the upcoming book, Teaching 2030 (Teachers College Press, due out by the end of this year), identify as one of the four *emerging realities* for our vision of the future of teaching.  We call it Differentiated Professional Pathways.

At the heart of the teacher quality and teacher retention problem in this country is an idea stated by my fellow TS2030 writer, Killian Betlach, who said (I’m paraphrasing here), “We expect far too much from teachers in their first year, and later on, we expect much too little.”  Several teachers who spoke in Education Nation made strong points about the need for stronger support of new teachers. That support, especially combined with a reduced teaching load in the first 2 years, could make a huge dent in the teacher retention and teacher quality problems on the front end of a teacher’s career.  But our problem is arguably greater in retaining strong teachers past their 4th through 7th years.

I have personally watched dozens of the best teachers in the buildings where I’ve worked leave teaching. They don’t leave because they don’t love teaching; they just don’t see a future in fulfilling the same responsibilities with the same schedule, at pretty much the same pay for the rest of their careers.  Most often, they become professors or principals. A few go to law school. Often times this is not out of a true passion for such positions, but out of a need for career advancement, greater autonomy, salary and status.  I’ve watched students have to say good-bye to too many of their best teachers.  Something is definitely not right with that.  For more discussion of this issue, TLN’er Steve Owen’s recent Teacher Magazine article, “Keeping Great Teachers in the Classroom,” provides a great discussion of Katy Farber’s timely book, Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus.

As we lay out in Teaching 2030, we need to restructure our profession to allow for varied opportunities for career advancement for effective, experienced teachers–that don’t all involve leaving the classroom. There have been some attempts to begin this process, such as the Lead Teacher program started in New York City by the UFT and the DOE.  The Lead Teacher program allowed a principal to appoint one teacher with at least ten years of experience to teach half time and mentor new teachers half time, for $10,000 above their regular salary.  From what I saw and heard, that worked to varying degrees depending on the way the principal assigned the lead teacher’s schedule and skill set of the lead teacher. (Being a mentor of new teachers is not the same skill set as teaching children.)  The Lead Teacher program is a great idea, and from this job posting, it seems to have developed since I first heard of it 4 years ago, but it is only a beginning.  It seems that precious little attention has been paid to developing and improving programs like this lately.

Hybrid roles can and should involve classroom teaching and leadership at a variety of levels.  Mentoring new teachers or leading a grade team or department at the school-level are only some of the possibilities.  Online mentoring with teachers in remote locations, consulting on everything from curriculum and technology integration to larger scale reforms at the district, state or federal level could also be done, (like some of the federal DOE teacher ambassadors are doing).  At any rate, we need to explore all of these options and see how they might help make use of the skills of strong teachers to improve the quality of education in our nations public schools.  If we do not offer opportunities for career advancement to classroom teachers, we will continue to lose them and their skills as they pursue other careers.

[Image credit: illustrationsource.com]