Moving from the Potential of Teacher Improvement to its Passionate Reality

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I want to make an argument for a system of support for teachers. I spent a decade in the classroom in large urban districts. During that time, I encountered many passionate teachers who worked relentlessly to improve, but often without support or direction. For the last seven years, I have travelled the country providing technical assistance to state, district, and school leaders, and I have met many more just like my former colleagues.

Teaching is a job. Teaching is a profession. Teaching is a passion. For the first two categories, we have long-standing systems in place to measure and encourage effectiveness. Let’s look at how those systems impact and lead toward a complementary system for the third category: teaching as a passion.

Support for teaching as a job

We’ve given a lot of attention in recent years to improving teacher evaluation. This is the system most aligned to teaching as a job. It is controlled by your boss and determines whether you stay employed; in most places, not much else. A great deal of recent effort has tried to leverage evaluation systems in a comprehensive strategy to refine practice, with mixed results.

When we conflate employment decisions with a system designed to help teachers improve, we end up with miscommunication. Many teachers see anything lower than a top rating as an insult to their practice, and not as an invitation for professional growth. Many principals avoid giving warranted ratings. Sometimes it is because they don’t have time to support a teacher. Other times it is because they don’t think the evidence they collected matches a teacher’s potential. Kraft and Gilmour identified four reasons like these, and they are recognizable to those in schools. The takeaway? Fixing teacher evaluation to fix student learning has limits.

Support for teaching as a profession

National Board Certification has long provided a natural fit for measuring and encouraging effectiveness while treating teaching as a profession. The process to become certified is voluntary, intensive, and peer controlled. Approximately 3% of teachers are National Board Certified. Students who need it most are less likely to have a board certified teacher.

Neither evaluation nor National Board Certification, however, existed in my daily consciousness as a practitioner. The folks I taught with were obsessed with teaching. They were passionate about it. Yet we talked about evaluation as an onerous occasional intrusion from somebody who had limited time and capacity. Some of us eventually obtained certification through the national board, but as one of a variety of individual pursuits, like applying to become a model teacher or getting a PhD. We supported each other, sure, but it was not our daily obsession.

Our daily obsession was our kids and our ideas. And how the first might react to the second.

Support for teaching as a passion

A system to support us would have at its core a set of simple, repeatable skills that every teacher—master and novice alike—could work on and talk through and argue over and obsess about. These skills range from teachers really knowing their students and content and giving usable feedback to how teachers counter students’ learning barriers.

This system would rely on teams of teachers—at times with the support of coaches and principals but at times with only the support of one another—to be the engine for change. This system would respect the old Diffusion of Innovations work that reveals that complicated change with invisible payoffs happens in networks of trusting relationships. That is, if someone you trust says, “Hey, try this thing that works for me.”

This system would be about what we could practice that makes us all better even if we are at really different levels of effectiveness now. This system would also have ways we could practice that push all practice to greater levels of effectiveness—avoiding the trap of collaboration which leads to sanding off the edges of reflection and ending up in a state of mediocrity, whereby the more effective defer to the less effective to maintain harmony.

Let’s think about one thing great teachers do well that seems deceptively simple: listening to students. The structure and history of classrooms creates an expectation for a teacher to be a lecturer and an authority, remaining at the center of attention. It takes practice and a few techniques to begin by eliciting input from students—and not just those who feel entitled to share loudly and often, but everyone. “Get to know you” surveys, measuring the ratio of teacher to student speech in class, and structuring your room so that students look at one another are all entry points to this practice. But even at the highest levels of mastery, similar tools and reflection allow teachers to think deeply about how each voice counts. At a high level, a classroom has multiple ways that students regularly shape their own learning experience and that of others.

Other practices involve asking thoughtful questions, giving usable feedback, knowing students and content, recognizing learning progress, leveraging powerful resources, countering learning barriers, and fostering trusting relationships. Each practice has simple, repeatable entry points that get at the essence of the underlying research on student learning. Practice those entry points, brainstorm with colleagues on the next little thing, talk frequently about how it is going, and pretty soon you have a strong foundation from which to deepen study.

We built these practices by borrowing heavily from the underlying research on effectiveness—examining twenty definitions of effective teaching in use around the country. We framed the practices in ways that matched our experience in the field with how teachers talk about and work on these topics. The result is a set of practices that feel essential and actionable.

Spending time on these practices is teacher improvement the way kids get better at soccer or music—through technical study and formal training, as well as through obsessing about it between those formal moments for fun. This method encourages experimenting with elemental components—penalty kicks past dark or repeating a favorite composition.

Designing a system to support teaching as a passion means that we understand that many teachers get better at teaching simply because we love the thrill of something well taught. We love to think of and communicate ways for our colleagues to experience what we experience when we are at our best.

Teaching is a job. Teaching is a profession. Teaching is a passion.

We need teachers everywhere to enjoy getting better together, leaning heavily into that third category—passion. We need this to complement, and not replace, the new and old systems in place that pull on the other categories. In my current role as a technical assistance provider, I think about and create tools and resources that would have accelerated my curiosity and quality of instruction as a teacher. Not every teacher feels passionate, but as I travel the country I find many more are passionate than not. We’ve made major investments in school systems across the country to give teachers more time to collaborate. Now let’s give teachers something to do in that time that promotes innovation, creativity, and joy in pedagogy as both teachers and students learn and grow.