Stuck in a professional rut

My new favorite cartoon that deals with education: A man sits atop a camel and has turned to his family of three who are sitting atop a camel that follows. The man says, “Stop asking me when we’re going to get there. We’re nomads for crying out loud!”

I use this cartoon when I communicate with colleagues about the fact that we are in a profession that needs to constantly find time to look to innovate and try new ideas, while continuing to improve on what we already know and do.

As in many professions, new knowledge and procedures are a given. These innovations demand systems and professional expectations that allow for their implementation. In my experience, education has viewed new approaches and procedures with trepidation, since for the most part it means changing classroom practice. The newest challenge to teacher practice comes in the form of the recently released Common Core Standards.

Common Core: a missed opportunity?

There are truckloads of resources and supports for educators implementing the new standards. Textbook publishers have aligned their texts to the new standards and have provided new assessments. For-profit and non-profit organizations offer conferences and institutes on ways to make the new standards work in the classroom.

The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) is one of the largest educational support organizations in the country. A quick look at the agenda for their annual conference in Chicago reveals that a healthy dose of the 400 workshops relate to Common Core implementation. Sessions feature titles like, “Literacy and Mathematics Tools for Implementing the Common Core State Standards,” to “Authentic Homework: one response to the Core Curriculum.”

Many interested teachers will attend the ASCD conference, picking and choosing from resources and strategies,and they will return home with ideas that benefit their students. But what about all of the students in a building or district?

How can we ensure that innovation does not become a chance encounter for students? I am not suggesting that it should be left up to district professional developers or state departments of education either. While it might seem systematically more efficient to implement in this way, it rarely works. It becomes one more thing DONE to teachers.

I think innovation and change should become part and parcel of what we expect teachers to do. This could be a great moment for teacher innovation, if teachers were compelled to do so and had time to plan and collaborate. Teachers could take hold of their profession and their work, working together to determine how best to help their own students, in their own classrooms to master the standards.

But are teachers to be trusted?

It can be done, if the will is there.

Imagine if we looked to our teachers as a “society of experts” as Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan describe the teachers in Finland in their book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School.”  

In Finland, a typical middle school teacher spends 600 hours in the classroom, while the typical American middle school teacher spends 1080 hours in the classroom. So how are Finnish teachers using all that non-instructional time?

Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on the Finnish school system, explains that since teachers are highly trained as research experts in their fields, they are entrusted with much of the curriculum and assessment that takes place in their schools. They do not work on instructional plans and techniques in isolation of one another but collaboratively.

Sahlberg notes, “Because Finnish teachers take on significant responsibility for curriculum and assessment, as well as experimenting with and improving teaching methods, some of the most important aspects of their work are conducted outside of classrooms.” This is expected as a responsibility of their job. They are not given extra compensation for this work. It is what they do!

We will gain the trust of society to show we know what works best for all students once our profession begins to view our work as ongoing and not as a series of events. If we do so, we will be able to engage in a professional process of getting better at what we do while looking to innovate at the same time.

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