Treading Teachers

June 21, 2011 at 4:25 PM 1 comment

Luring the next generation of heroes into the teaching profession has become the perennial solution to every ill in education…because, of course, blame for every problem in education has been laid on the teachers. So, whatever happened to all those good teachers who have been hired over the years?

The ritual is played out annually. In the limelight, new heroes arrive with great expectations, anxious to be inducted into their new profession. Rising stars step up to pseudo-leadership positions, the new role models for veteran teachers in need of reinvention. The unwilling, the usual suspects, gird their loins and place their union reps on speed dial. Administrators extend their welcome, endorse their favorites through praise, and send the occasional stern glance. In the background, the majority of staff watches the show.

Yes, there are millions of teachers who love what they do for a living and do it with quiet dignity behind the scenes. For many of them, the best they can hope for is to be taken for granted, to be left alone to perform their duties out of the spotlight. They could be the true leaders, the natural mentors, and the knowledge bank for pedagogy and student support. Yet they often seem to have become the forgotten partners for administration.

Public education is a profession with a very flat pyramidal structure. This structure has been successfully employed in higher education and many high tech industries. It has been heralded as the model for innovation and independence. However, it presumes a strong potential for individual achievement as well as a preference for stability and lower professional risk once tenure has been attained.

Absent the great successes in a field of innovation or the prestige of a university professorship, elementary and secondary education offers limited extrinsic professional value. Nowhere is this more evident than in the urban setting. Challenges far outweigh the recognition or rewards, and the flat pyramid offers little opportunity for promotion. Instead, the culture has developed a cycle of churning those who offer early signs of leadership through a short-lived rising star/falling star phenomenon.

Each batch of fresh recruits brings the potential for new solutions to the achievement gap in urban education. Promising rookies quickly catch the eye of administration. As they grow into their jobs in the classroom, many begin to be groomed for leadership. They offer access to the latest innovations from education schools. Dedication bordering on masochism underlies their choice of the urban setting. They are eager to please and cannot say, “No.” And they do not know yet that tying up all the loose ends for a department or project does not constitute management training. A star is born.

Eventually, a few begin to climb the leadership ladder. Many leave the field, exhausted, disillusioned with education, or drawn to other opportunities. Some remain and join the corps of career teachers. This last group finds itself walking a fine line as they re-assimilate with rank and file teachers, many of whom have grudgingly tolerated their stardom. No time to look back. The next class of new teachers has arrived. New heroes are offering the best lesson plans and latest technology. Pedagogy has shifted; what was old is new again. But only the newer kids are allowed to own it.

Above it all, school leaders tread through the cycle, not actually affecting much change in student outcomes. Accountability calls for action, and action means calls for new teachers. “Send me a new batch…the last ones seem to be broken…Where, oh where, can we find good teachers?

Meanwhile, an invisible army of teachers carries on, driven by their independence, a desire to share in the joy of discovery, and the knowledge that they are not really alone in spirit. Still, it is going to be a long 30 years. There must be a better answer.


Entry filed under: Ageism in Education, School Leadership, Teacher Effectiveness, The Flat Pyramid. Tags: , .

No Time for NCLB Lite Boys and Girls NEED to Run Around

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