Posts filed under ‘Career Arcs’

The Containment Company

Once upon a time…Lifelong teachers paced themselves. The culture taught them not to get ahead of themselves. And if they did, wise leaders would fire up the ovens in the Humble Pie Bakeshop. Their colleagues could be trusted to organize the party. No one saw the invisible hand at work while order was restored. But what would become the residue of such containment?

Do teachers have lowered expectations of their students because they have been nurtured in a culture that limited them to a long, slow trajectory toward retirement? Or did teachers who were best at containing, er, managing their students get promoted to school leadership and elevate that talent to managing the adults in the building as well? This chicken and egg conundrum doesn’t matter so much as its legacy needs to be acknowledged and undone.

Teachers, like students, are capable of far more than we ask of them. Instead of nurturing them for greatness, we have focused on hiring the best and the brightest only to contain them for a 30-year endurance trial. With such a slow progression, periodic review happened every few years. The path to the top was short, but it was only available to a few young protégés or, alternately, the last guy standing…often a coach who was approaching retirement. For the rest, a closed pension fund limited their mobility horizontally as well as vertically. Being average at best was manifest destiny.

The vast majority of school leaders would agree that this system does not work. Yet, as long as the teachers make good scapegoats, too few administrators are likely to cite their own complicity in the problem or volunteer for professional reinvention. The truism that school leaders just need to keep getting better as models of instructional leadership is too deeply entrenched in their mythology. It takes an unnatural act of leadership to accept accountability and grow in different ways.

As talent managers, school leaders cannot just attract new staff; they must engender continued growth over every teacher’s career arc with frequent constructive intervention. Drawing on other industries, the employee motivation program must include annual goal setting and review. And goal attainment must be supported with quarterly progress checks. Finding time to engage with their staff in this manner will overwhelm them initially. And investments in high-level professional development will require changing the expectations of the entire professional community.

The change process will not be easy, and it will depend on deep commitment from the top of every district and school. However, proactive staff development can be achieved, again with extensive district support in the short run, and sustained through time and effort saved from the problems that will occur less often…like worries over bad teachers and student achievement once disengagement and ineffectiveness are reduced.


January 30, 2013 at 12:59 PM Leave a comment

Age Discrimination Is Not Just Illegal – It is Wrong

In America, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, gender, religion,… or AGE! However, the last attribute is the one I have found missing most often from explicit lists in anti-discrimination policies of public school districts. And the rhetoric in the field suggests that this omission is not accidental.  

I’ve had it. The excerpt below came from a New York Magazine article about a principal in an elite public school in the Bronx, but it could have arisen just about anywhere in education…

“She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). *

Not only does it espouse a pedagogical one-way street, it also embodies the age bias that has become an accepted part of the landscape.

As an industry, we have become complacent about laying the blame for problems in education on people who, upon reaching a fairly early middle age, have failed to die…or at least go away quietly. A system of tenure combined with a pension trap may engender stagnation on the job for some; however, the presumption of ineffectiveness based on a demographic attribute is prejudicial and, frankly, ignorant. Further, an incentive system that fails to facilitate frequent self-assessment, goal-setting, and review over the entire course of a career is the real culprit, to the extent that teachers are complicit in disappointing results.

Age bias hurts everyone and should offend everyone, not become a policy initiative. From a legal point of view, the statement cited above offers prima facie evidence of discrimination. In addition, it bolsters a naive approach to leadership that ignores the combined values of diversity and authentic staff development in the vitality of any organization. Preference for young employees overlooks the value added by age and experience. It deprives younger staff of natural mentors. It eliminates institutional memory. And it has no end game for employees. Being young-at-heart has no value – one simply must not get old.

Finally, if age bias is not effectively remedied by the leadership in education, school districts will get exactly what they deserve…an age discrimination case in the courts which forever protects every charlatan who happens to be an older adult along with all those dedicated teachers of a certain age who continue to devote their lives to the education of children despite the insidious prejudice they face every day. And it should, because they all deserve equal protection under the law and the full benefits of the American constitution.


December 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM Leave a comment

Because You Laid Them Off

The high rate of turnover among new teachers is highlighted as a major problem in urban education. I call it a symptom. Bewildered analysts are trying to figure out how to fix teacher prep or change the compensation. In reality, some people just can’t keep going back year after year seeking employment from someone who keeps firing them.

Staying employed in the same urban education district for the first three years of one’s career takes dedication and nerves of steel…Not because of the pay, the conditions, the long hours, or anything else intrinsic to the work. It’s the process of getting laid off each spring and hanging on until the last gasp of fall hiring brings you back to work.

By May each year, provisional, or non-tenured, teachers have gotten a notice that their employment status is not guaranteed. Within a few weeks each will be officially laid off. Large urban districts have well-oiled machines for these annual layoffs. By contrast, the restoration of these same jobs seems to happen with great delay. Many who would love to return to their prior assignments simply do not have the stomach or the financial wherewithal to turn down opportunities elsewhere while holding onto that verbal reassurance from a headmaster who vows to rehire them eventually.

Yes, we need good teachers from the start, people who have spent quality time in many learning environments, who have learned their own lessons well, and who are committed to growth in the profession. We need formalized teacher induction programs, facilitated by the school district and managed by the leadership within the developing teacher’s milieu. We need to compensate teachers fairly and equitably. However, none of these help us keep teachers who have found themselves too often in the water, hanging onto a lifeline that used to be attached to a ship that has since sailed away.

As we research our issues with new teacher turnover, can we differentiate among teachers who fled the field, those who got the boot for cause, and those for whom the timing just wasn’t right? In the first two cases, authentic preparation and induction processes offer remedy. In the last case, however, the urban district’s loss just might be a gain for another district with greater agility in the HR department…a critical success factor that will only grow in importance with innovations in functional teacher mobility.

October 10, 2011 at 9:00 AM Leave a comment

Promote Teacher Quality with Career Mobility – Not More Regulation

Professionals often get their first jobs because of their educational backgrounds; they keep getting jobs because of where they have worked and what they have done. They enter each job well-prepared and committed to keeping themselves current, energized, and growing. Obstacles are hurdles to be overcome; problems are opportunities for leadership and accountability. These are NOT the values of regulation; they are the values of entrepreneurship.

Historical patterns of regulation in K-12 education tended to erect barriers to entry in lieu of professional quality assurance. Teachers and administrators have had to complete required coursework and apprenticeships as well as passing exams or other assessments to achieve licensure. They then entered the profession, often remaining in the same school district for the duration of their careers. Periodic recertification required professional development and, in some cases, additional formal education. However, by that time, most had achieved tenure. They were IN the system, and every financial incentive from paycheck to pension created barriers to exit.

The US Department of Education has determined that this regulated approach to teacher quality has failed. What we need is…drum roll, please…regulation to make the barriers to entry higher. Huh? Yes, let’s make it harder for those closest to the energized newbie end of the spectrum, new teachers-in-training, to get the job. Not sure how this addresses the problems of hiring and retention in urban education, but it clearly does something that even the toughest blame-game champions have never been able to accomplish: assign accountability for failures within the public education system to people who have not yet participated. Way to keep the peace guys!

I am truly disappointed. This is not Change I Can Believe In. This is further abdication of leadership. We have an opportunity to inject entrepreneurship into the system, challenge bureaucratic procedures, and reset the way we motivate leaders in the classroom and in the front office. Let’s rethink this thing. And not with the institutional myopia of a group of insiders whose vision comes from the wrong end of the telescope. It’s time to let people in education come and go as they please, and to bring a more cosmopolitan approach to problem-solving. I’m talking removal of the barriers to exit.

Suppose teachers and administrators had freedom to move about the education system, seeking new experiences, sharing expertise, and disseminating best practices…without severe financial penalties. Suppose a great teacher wanted to go for an MBA instead of an MA in school leadership…to bring new management tools back to the system. Suppose an empathetic school leader wanted a burned-out educator to get to a better place…without losing the ranch.

Educator quality arises from openness to change, which, when managed correctly, translates into professional growth. It is predicated on trust, fair evaluation of performance, and safe harbor while taking calculated risks and exploring creativity. It is stifled by rigid regulations, inflexible pay and benefits, and scapegoating behavior. We will not build a better education system with a slow trickle of teachers from more tightly regulated teacher prep programs. We have a lot of great teachers. We need to set them free.

October 3, 2011 at 11:56 AM Leave a comment

Treading Teachers

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.

June 21, 2011 at 4:25 PM 1 comment

The Case for Career Mobility

The revolving door for newcomers, the pension trap, and the toxic culture of a flat pyramid contribute to the breakdown in public education. Today, students may pursue their diplomas through traditional classrooms, online courses, and dual enrollment in college. Just as the doors are opening and the walls are coming down for students, teachers and administrators would benefit from access to career detours outside of their districts.

 An enlightened workforce would bring benefits to any education complex, adding…

  • Perspective from educators in other districts or career paths;
  • Management tools from other industries and organizations;
  • Credible knowledge of practical ways to apply lessons learned in school;
  • Insight for organizational effectiveness and culture; and
  • Creativity from a fresh look at the milieu.

 Access to 401K plans, Social Security, and other retirement options would improve equity and fiscal prudence for all educators. In addition, districts should allow employees to leave and return later without loss of service credits. A sunset clause should be introduced to union contracts for an orderly transition to pension plans with transferable contributions.

 Leaving one’s job is not the only solution. New teacher induction programs that offer mentoring and retention incentives are a topic for another day; likewise, in-district professional development. However, removal of the barriers to mobility is crucial to enlightened self-interest for educators.

February 18, 2011 at 10:45 AM Leave a comment

The Flat Pyramid

Rising Star-Falling Star

(work in progress)

February 18, 2011 at 10:40 AM Leave a comment