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October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2
Leading Together

Let's Talk Up the Profession

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Education leaders have a vocal role to play in elevating the teaching profession.

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LeadershipSchool Culture
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Credit: ELLA SARKISIAN / SHUTTERSTOCK-
Teaching is not a job to me. I've had jobs. I've worked in a library, an ice cream shop, and the Division of Motor Vehicles, showing up to perform routinized tasks and walking away each week with a paycheck but little sense of investment in the work or solidarity with co-workers.
In contrast, teaching is a calling that draws me in as the best way to make a difference in the world. It drives me to want to build my expertise, take my practice to new levels, examine results, collaborate in problem solving, and engage in dialogue about what we're learning so that the professional knowledge base grows. It's work that leaves me feeling proud, feeling a connection to my colleagues as collaborators, and feeling a sense of stewardship for the next generation of educators. Even now, after stepping outside the classroom to teach teachers and lead education leaders, I identify as a member of the teaching profession. But I know not every teacher has experienced teaching as professional work.
Scholars tell us that professions are those lines of work that function to advance civilization and thus require not only a service ethic but complex skills and knowledge that are not easily acquired or widely held (Ingersoll, 2018). By virtue of this specialized knowledge base, true professionals have the authority to make autonomous decisions about their practice, are trusted to do their work at a high level, and are collectively responsible for maintaining and raising that standard. I was lucky to begin my teaching career in schools with a professional orientation toward teaching. Unfortunately, most teachers do not have this experience. Public underestimation of the knowledge and skill required for effective teaching has kept control largely out of teachers' hands and has relegated teaching to the status of what Etzioni (1969) calls a "semi-profession." Leaders who want to transform schools so they work for all students must help professionalize the teaching experience.

Context Matters

An individual's experience of teaching may have to do with the time, place, and skin they're in. Those of us who have been in this line of work awhile have seen the pendulum swing over time as teachers have had greater or lesser control over what they teach and how. Context matters too. Some schools foster a culture of collective autonomy in which teachers are collaborating to build professional capital. Others are characterized by top-down mandates in which teachers' work is controlled and de-skilled by heavy-handed curriculum materials, "fail proof" instructional strategies, or contrived merit-pay schemes that sort educators into planners and implementers. Gender, racial, and other perceived identities may also influence if certain teachers are presumed competent enough to be trusted with professional decision-making in their classrooms. Now is the time, and your school is the place, to start recognizing and growing the expertise every teacher brings to the table.

Be comprehensive and inclusive as you draw attention to educators' superpowers.

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Where teachers' expertise is undervalued, tremendous capacity is wasted or lost. Today, with schools under great strain as a result of the pandemic, increasing numbers of teachers are exploring whether other schools—or other professions—might better value their instructional expertise and strategic decision-making skills.
Where teachers' expertise is valued, they strive to grow and share their knowledge together, provide mutual support and accountability for impact, and build collective efficacy as they celebrate success. Such professional workplaces are more likely to attract, grow, and retain effective, collaborative teachers. In her book Where Teachers Thrive, Susan Moore Johnson (2019) offers lessons for leaders seeking to professionalize teaching and organize their schools for success. Ultimately, a climate of professionalism provides the conditions for a teaching practice that is more responsive and diagnostic and thus more likely to meet every student's needs. Students need and deserve to learn in schools where teaching is regarded as a profession, not just a job.

Professional Workplaces

Teacher leaders, principals, and other education leaders can create conditions for teachers to engage as professionals and make their work visible in ways that might eventually shift public perception.
  • Invest in expertise and support specialization: Teaching is complex work. Every teacher cannot be an expert at all of it, but every teacher should expect to become the local expert on some of it. Support teachers with the resources needed to specialize, such as graduate courses, National Board certification, other targeted training programs, or teachers' own action research projects that add value to the school's core work. Encourage cross-site visits in schools working on shared problems of practice so that understanding deepens.
  • Organize to optimize teachers' skills: When teachers with specialized expertise are working together, every student can benefit from the differential expertise that teachers collectively hold. Prepare and position educators to influence one another's instruction as team members, model classroom leaders, mentors, professional learning facilitators, or coaches. Enlist their participation in schoolwide problem solving and action research as part of instructional leadership teams and other schoolwide decision-making committees. Advocate for their participation in district-level work.
  • Highlight educators' accomplishments: Educators tend to be a modest crew. So share news, both within the school and beyond, about what different teachers are learning so they can more readily recognize one another as resources and so community members can see the specialized skills required of our profession. Be comprehensive and inclusive as you draw attention to educators' superpowers: Who have you missed? What forms of leadership have you overlooked? Shine a spotlight on the role teachers' differentiated professional expertise plays in school success.

Change the Conversation

The pandemic has cast new light on teachers' work and generated curiosity within and beyond schools about the experience of teaching as a career. It's got everyone talking about teaching. Education leaders should seize this moment to critically consider whether the schools they lead are professional workplaces or just places to go to work—and to ponder the implications for student learning. Perhaps there are one or two new moves that can be made to change the conversation.
When education leaders invest in, optimize, and highlight educators' professional expertise, they not only amplify the power of teachers' instructional decision making, but also influence public perception of the school as a learning community that teachers and families want to join—and of teaching as a professional aspiration that the best of the next generation want to reach.

Uprooting Instructional Inequity

Jill Harrison Berg offers a comprehensive guide to help school and teacher leaders amplify the power of collaborative inquiry as a means for identifying, interrogating, and addressing instructional inequity.

Uprooting Instructional Inequity

References

Etzioni, A. (Ed.). (1969). The semi-professions and their organizations: Teachers, nurses, and social workers. Free Press.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Collins, G. J. (2018). The status of teaching as a profession. In J. Ballantine, J. Spade, & J. Stuber (Eds.), Schools and society: A sociological approach to education (pp. 199–213) 6th Ed. Pine Forge Press/Sage Publications.

Johnson, S. M. (2019). Where teachers thrive: Organizing schools for success. Harvard Education Press.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

 

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