The Influence of Teaching (or not)

A new book came out this week called, The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership by John Merrow. It’s a good read that received some great advance praise including this:

“John Merrow’s incisive observations and powerful, moving stories in his new book, The Influence of Teachers:  Reflections on Teaching and Leadership, are prescient at a time when the public is searching for solutions to America’s systemic educational challenges. His dedication ‘To Outstanding Teachers Everywhere,’ and his preface ‘Fighting the Last War’ foreshadow the problems and solutions that the book richly develops. A ‘must read’ for those responsible for American’s children and their future: that would be all of us.”

– Patrick Bassett, Executive Director, The National Association of Independent Schools

Daniel Pink states in his book Drive that as long people are paid enough, they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Even though teachers are only paid modestly, I can agree with those three things.  It’s obvious Bill Gates doesn’t need to ‘work’ anymore, but he continues working through his foundation trying to make this world a better place.

Pink’s name came up as a potential speaker for our regional fall conference, but it was clear that he needed a big carrot (too big for us) to come and speak. I don’t blame him. While he want’s to influence education, speaking to educators is clearly not is main purpose. But Whatever that is, I’m sure he has a great sentence that gives him meaning as well as enjoyment. I’m sure he wants to get better at it, and continue on his own  growth trajectory.  I’m also pretty certain that he has plenty of autonomy and can do whatever it is he loves without anyone else setting limits for him (except his publisher, perhaps).

Most great teachers make modest incomes, so they clearly didn’t go into education for the pay. It’s because of this that teachers fight so hard to protect the implied promise of tenure and increased pay over time. New teachers being paid low wages and the very senior teachers making the most. This implied promise of this pay scale, however, is being eroded in almost every state. Nonetheless, it’s not pay that drives teachers to teach. It would be nice if the US were like Singapore in this respect. They offer their top 20% of high-school graduates full scholarships (and stipends while they’re in college) to go into education. I know I work with many teachers who would meet this qualification. They are extremely smart people.

Teachers in the U.S. enter the profession after spending five years in college (most having much debt to contend with) and are then expected to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to be state certified. Many teachers will also go back to school to get a more advanced degree in order to increase their compensation. Some of the various teaching specific degrees can be found on Online Teaching Degree’s college program listings. Going to college is, of course all at the cost of the young teacher

This, of course is all at the cost of the young teacher – unless you are at a school that supports this and includes it in their professional development budgets. Some of those hoops are better in some states, but in the name of ‘accountability’ they are hoops nonetheless, and teachers must jump through them in order to remain certified. I know many teachers who spent three days away from their families to visit other schools as part of an accreditation team. Does the state recognize this time as professional development? Nope. In two weeks, the National Association of Independent Schools will have their annual conference. I was lucky to have my school support me attending this conference last year. This year others will be given the opportunity, and I can’t wait to hear back. Because this conference is out of state, however, teachers from outside that state will not be given any credit towards their professional development requirements by the state. Nonetheless, this conference last year made a huge impact on me. In fact, that conference was one of the main reasons I was inspired to start this blog.

Furthermore, new teachers (whether new to the profession, or new to a district are usually given the worst assignments – whatever that means). For me, my first year in public school, I taught in a portable with no furniture in the middle of a playground. It was still an amazing year, because walls and furniture aren’t the things that make a classroom, the relationships among the kids and what they learn are. In private schools, thankfully there is no seniority. While I don’t agree with teachers having permanent tenure, most independent schools only offer teachers one year contracts. There’s a downside to this, as some teachers feel like they cannot speak freely in fear that they may not have their contract renewed.

A lot of non-teachers will say, “but you get your summers off.” Well, they haven’t met most teachers. We work during the holidays. It’s not the same kind or pace of work as teaching during the school year, but let me assure you that all the teachers I work with put in significant amounts of their own time.  In the summer, many may use the time preparing for the new school year, adopting new curricula, learning new things to bring back to our classrooms. Teachers may seem to get more holidays than the average person, but teachers are not well compensated and are not able to choose when to take their vacations.

The book is a balanced, but provocative look at education, its problems, and possible solutions and Tony Wagner suggests both practitioners and leaders read the book. We’re held responsible to create healthy learning environments for children. Our leaders also need to create environments where teachers can truly be caring, collaborative, and respected.

I am extremely sensitive to our profession right now with all of noise, blame, and finger pointing in the headlines that place almost all the responsibility on the teacher. I’ll be the first to admit that teachers play a huge part in that responsibility and need to be accountable, but so do parents, administrators, and any policy maker involved in education.

The book talks about teacher pay, tenure, teacher evaluations, seniority, accountability based on testing and many other issues. Merrow also boiled down the reason for high teacher attrition to three things:

“Schools underpay and mistreat teachers and eventually drive them from the profession; inept school districts cannot find the qualified teachers living under their noses; and substandard training ill-prepares young men and women for the realities of classroom life.”

Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania told Merrow, “we can recruit all kinds of qualified people and persuade them to go into teaching, but if they get into jobs that aren’t well paid and don’t have particularly good working conditions in which they’re given little say in the way schools operate, it’s not going to really solve the problem because a lot of these people will leave.”

There is an illusion that teachers have a voice, for example, there are 8 people on the Think Tank for the NAIS national conference in DC which takes place in a couple of weeks. Not one of them is currently a classroom teacher. For an organization who prides itself on diversity leadership, I would suggest that the group (all administrators and one trustee) overlooked representation from a very important, but high stakeholder – a teacher. I’m glad to hear next year’s conference (in Seattle) will include a teacher.

I started this post with Daniel Pink’s main thesis about what drives us to do what we do and, unless it’s a mundane, repetitive task, carrots and sticks are not what motivates teachers. It’s not the pay nor the time off that motivate teachers. And while teachers influence their students, teachers don’t really influence policy makers. Most teachers will agree that educating a child gives them plenty of meaning and a satisfying sense of purpose. Wanting to grow and become better at what we do, is something I firmly believe most teachers are committed to as well. When teachers become micromanaged, disrespected, and lose our autonomy to do what we do best, that drive (which includes working hard, caring deeply about what we do, and developing strong relationships with our students, for example) diminishes. And those impacted the most are the kids.