Sitting next to Arne Duncan: What I said about the future of the teaching profession

Last week I had the privilege to sit on a panel of National Board Certified Teachers at the White House with Arne Duncan. It was heartening to really get the sense that the Department of Education does get the pulse of teachers’ attitudes and is actively making efforts to hear teachers’ voices. Full video of the event is here. (I come in close to the 33-minute mark.)

 

On the stage, my palms were sweaty and my throat was dry. I’ve transcribed my answer to the first questions sent my way. What do you think? What would you have said to the Secretary of Education?

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Official White House photo. I led with my signature claw dance move. Sec. Duncan looked on inscrutably.)

 

Question: What is your vision for the future of the teaching profession?

My answer:

It’s often said that we need to base decisions on the facts on the ground. That’s true and on the ground in education teachers know what’s going on. NEA research published last year showed that among teachers, the number one most cited hindrance to good teaching is “heavy workload.” The default mode for teachers is swamped. Teachers are by nature doers and go-getters, so they’re going to go the extra mile, so people get isolated into their little pockets where they either burn out or just create pockets of excellence but aren’t really in a position to spread the wealth.

 

The second hindrance is “hostile or unsupportive school leaders” so teachers that could be great are misused. Imagine if in the very beginning of Tom Brady’s career he was forced to play a different position or benched the first time he threw an interception. At the first school I worked at in the Bronx, nobody was an NBCT. I’d never even heard of it. The atmosphere was one of fear and intimidation. So a lot of people with talent weren’t able to realize it.

 

So how do we activate the talent? There are over 3 million teachers in this country and they’re overwhelmingly smart people, talented people— but swamped. If I wasn’t here right now I’d be teaching three consecutive 100-minute blocks. It’s brutal— for me and my wife.

 

What if teachers could have more career ladders and hybrid positions or job-sharing opportunities to keep them in the classroom but also to provide time and space for them to use their talents in their school communities? I have a degree in Film & Television from New York University and I have experience teaching filmmaking to young people. If I could cut my teaching load in half, I’d love to travel to schools all over DC and help them set up AV programs. We can systemically spread the wealth.

 

Teaching is great. It’s great work and I love being with the kids, but it can really burn you out. When I did my student teaching at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, one of the last huge five-thousand-student comprehensive high schools in New York, teachers carried 5 classes per day with 34 students per class. They saw 170 students per day. It was prohibitive not just to go through the National Board process where you really have to scrutinize student work, where you have to examine how to promote listening and speaking and fairness and equity and diversity with a fine tooth comb, but also even to assign essays. It’s staggering if it takes you 15 minutes to really read and provide quality feedback on a piece of student work. The math is mind-boggling.

 

There’s so talent that’s lying dormant in our teaching force. It’s dying on the vine. But the whole profession is under attack because there’s this big suspicion out there hovering over all teachers now: Are you a bad teacher? Are you one of the bad ones? Let’s plug in our algorithm and find out.

It’s scary. Teachers really need to advocate for their vision of the future of the profession. This is a fight and NBCTs need to be on the frontlines.

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