What is a Teacher Who Learns Worth?

Teachers are often, by nature, learners. It is time for the educational system to value this in practical ways.

The past few weeks CTQ bloggers have been exploring the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you to join us in this conversation by posting thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn. 

As I read through my peers’ posts on how teachers learn, I am inspired. But I am also left with a question: How do districts invest practically in individualized teacher learning experiences?

My district, like many, has a pay scale. For each year of experience I have, I get a little more money. Or, I can move myself horizontally on the scale by taking classes and earning credits. 

Early in my career, I was advised by my mentors to do my very best to earn as many credits as possible as fast as possible to get to that coveted far right column on the pay scale.

The general consensus amongst these advisors was that the courses to take should have two qualities: they should be cheap and easy.

Idealist that I am, I largely ignored their advice and methodology seeking professional learning experiences that were valuable beyond monetary gain. I signed up for workshops and courses that directly related to the classes I was teaching. I had amazing experiences with the National Writing Project, Advanced Placement, and The Colorado Writing Project, all of which directly influenced who I am as a teacher today.

This summer, I had my best learning experience to date. After doing a great deal of research and applying to various programs, I was accepted to the English-Speaking Union’s British Summer School. I was enrolled as a student in the University of Oxford’s continuing education program, which gave me access to a traditional Oxford course of study.

I knew in advance that this particular program would not come with an official transcript. I figured this wouldn’t be a problem as my HR department has a committee, the Intermediate Hours Board (IHB), that meets to review professional learning that doesn’t fit within traditional formats (i.e. travel). So, I made arrangements prior to leaving to submit my certificate of completion with documentation of the hours to this group and left feeling confident that my three-week immersion in English culture and literature would yield the twelve quarter hours I had requested in advance.

When I returned from my incredible (and incredibly difficult) experience at Oxford, I submitted final documentation and waited.

Two weeks later, I got a letter saying that the only hours the IHB would consider were the traditional seat time hours of my course. Of the twelve credits I had requested, I only received four. The months it took to read my nine primary texts prior to arriving and the hours of independent research and writing were invalid according to their formula for awarding credit.

Needless to say, I was pretty upset.

I worked hard to challenge the IHB’s decision. I wrote letters to other students from my program who had earned credit from their home universities, did research on the ways that Oxford awards credit and presented a stack of evidence arguing that, at the very least, I should have earned the equivalent of two semester classes worth of credit.

HR informed me that exceptions couldn’t be made because it would weaken the system.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there. Perhaps a system that can’t make an exception for Oxford is already weak.

As the school year has progressed, I’ve let go of much of my frustration about this whole experience.  I had to. I can’t let bitterness influence my classroom.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have to assign my own value to my experience at Oxford. While I could have used the credits to get another step on the pay scale, attending Oxford was about so much more. It was about seeking out the most challenging experience I could imagine and meeting those challenges face on. It was about learning to be a better teacher by immersing myself in the oldest, academic environment in the English-speaking world. It was about learning to be a better teacher by throwing myself into the life of a student.

The fact that that isn’t valued by systems that use basic formulas for determining what a teacher learns rather than considering the implications of the actual learning is at the very least ridiculous and, more likely, damaging.

A good educator knows that students don’t learn best by sitting and absorbing information. So why should that be the method most practically valued for teacher-learners? What kind of professional learning will that mentality support?

I’ve been struggling for a few months to decide how to write a blog about this issue that goes beyond my frustration. The truth remains, though, that the system needs to be updated to reflect the many kinds of opportunities teachers have to learn.

Shouldn’t districts want to encourage their teachers to challenge themselves and seek opportunities that will truly impact their teaching? Or do I need to let go of my idealism and find the cheapest and easiest ways to move myself up the pay scale?

In a world that is rife with alternative learning opportunities, school districts need to shift their thinking and embrace all the ways that teachers learn. With the advent of thinks like massive online open courses and micro-credentialing, teachers have a plethora of new ways to learn. School districts need to recognize and celebrate this. They need to acknowledge that a well-educated staff is worth investing in.

Photo Credit: By Manuel Dohmen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons