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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

Take Back Teaching Now

Teachers need autonomy over their own work to engage as true professionals and bring about real change.

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Several years ago, I enjoyed some success as a middle school band director. I led an award-winning program that attracted nearly half the students in my school. But I was convinced I could do more. We did exciting things—there were concerts, parades, and travel—but our daily lessons seemed to be missing something important. We never looked at the cultural roots of popular music that students listened to every day. We never explored the physics of sound or the relationship of music theory to mathematics. My students weren't creating their own music either. Our modus operandi was rehearse, rehearse, perform.
I wanted to make a difference—to broaden my students' perspectives around the importance of music in global cultures and to give them tools for enjoying and participating in music making as adults. So over the span of one school year, I changed crucial elements of my practice.
One humanities lesson I designed asked my students to think about the impact of violent and misogynistic lyrics in popular music. Parent apprehension over song lyrics is a huge deal with 7th graders, most of whom believe that they're "old enough" to see or listen to anything and that it will have no effect on their character or thinking. It's a dicey classroom topic—asking middle schoolers to look at freedom of speech, cultural norms, and increasing violence in media. But the other option was to let the marketplace manipulate my students as consumers of pop music, so it seemed worth the risk.
I spoke with my principal, telling him why I thought I could do a better job as a music teacher. He was reluctant to change a popular program, and he was especially wary of an extended lesson on song lyrics—he emphatically did not want to get phone calls from parents. Mentioning that I intended to share these plans at Back to School night did not reassure him. He told me to proceed cautiously.
My students' parents, on the other hand, were enthusiastic about an occasional break from regular rehearsal routines to study popular music, and they were intrigued by a simulated case I presented that involved two fictional students, Michael and Jessica. Michael injures Jessica in a rage, after a steady diet of songs with violent lyrics. Two parents who were lawyers volunteered to read drafts of my materials and help clarify legal issues, balancing the constitutional right to publish and distribute artistic media with important reasons to guard against a violence-soaked culture. I used examples from real songs as well as faux lyrics to illustrate how easy it is to become desensitized to anger and misogyny; there were no parent objections.
The Michael and Jessica simulation was one of the most productive and satisfying pedagogical experiences in my 30-year career in the classroom. The questions that students raised varied from year to year, but they never failed to explore the role of music in shaping their own lives and cultural norms. For example, many of my students assumed that they were immune to the influence of media, but they were willing to consider that younger children might be pressured or harmed by inappropriate lyrics. We also tackled the question of free speech: Are there legal protections against potentially harmful media? Do artists have the right to make brutality seem acceptable? Eventually, the lesson materials were shared with teachers and schools around the United States.
The Michael and Jessica case was my first experiment in exploring big issues in the arts. I was soon reserving Mondays for humanities lessons, delving into composition, music history, world music, and links among music and other artistic modes. I stopped thinking in terms of the next performance and began teaching and assessing a broader range of musical knowledge.
How was I able to make such changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment—including tackling tricky subjects? I was a veteran teacher, well-known and trusted in the community. I was teaching a subject that was not tested; students elected to be in my class. I didn't act alone—I shared nontraditional ideas and goals with colleagues and parents. If teachers are going to innovate—to lead change, set new learning goals, and embed real context-based reform into their core work—building trust is an essential cornerstone.

Caught in the Squeeze

There's more to any story of successful classroom change, however. Increasingly, teachers' ability to manage their own curriculum, instruction, and assessment is being challenged by a growing infrastructure of state and federal accountability measures and fervent policymaking. Teachers who enter the profession bubbling with good ideas and a desire to change students' lives find they're expected to follow rigid instructional templates, ticking off benchmarks and goals set by people who never met the students in their classrooms.
In short, educators who want to generate custom-tailored, relevant, pioneering teaching in their classrooms are in a bind. School leaders are caught in the squeeze between following punitive top-down policy and doing what they know is best for students. New teachers, although enthusiastic about promoting change, often lack the experience and guidance to do so. And veteran teachers who want to stay in the classroom tread lightly around current waves of mandated reform.
Even prospective teachers are touched by the fallout. How many bright and creative people will the work of teaching attract if there's no opportunity for professional discretion and autonomy?

More Than a Technician

So how can we engender the kind of focused education leadership that will produce truly inventive teaching and deeper learning? How can teachers fulfill their aspirations of making a difference in their students' lives?
The answer may lie in transforming teaching. Over the past two decades, there's been a great deal of thinking and writing about teacher leadership. Administrators have been encouraged to nurture teacher leadership as a means of delegating responsibility for reaching schoolwide achievement goals. National alternate-entry programs are built around the concept of developing lifelong education leaders rather than superb classroom practitioners.
To be sure, teacher leaders share their good ideas, mentor novices, and build learning communities. Sometimes they're selected for special hybrid roles. But what they don't always have is control over their own work—and that's the mark of a profession.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine (Basic Books, 1982), Paul Starr identifies three attributes of a true profession: the cognitive, the collegial, and the moral. It's hard to see teaching as a profession in a policy atmosphere in which teachers' core tasks—developing curriculum, using assessment to inform instruction, working with parents, and upholding public education for the purpose of creating an educated citizenry—are controlled by forces outside their school and classroom. Teachers' hard-won cognitive expertise, collegial practices, and moral vision of education as an investment in equity are all under fire. In fact, we're moving away from teacher professionalism toward a teacher-as-technician model.
Take a look at this description of creative teaching by educator Shawn McCusker:
<BQ> One analogy for the role of the teacher in an abundant economy of information is that of the conductor …. The conductor may never play a single note, but his understanding of each small part of the larger work makes a far more powerful product possible. This is also true of the classroom teacher in the new economy of information. Group work can be assigned and completed, but the classroom teacher must … recognize the potential of the individual work that the students do and unite it together into a greater and more powerful work. When information is available in abundance, teachers will still be subject matter experts, but their true value will lie in their ability to facilitate and share the expertise of their students. </BQ>
Sound delicious? It's a great analogy for an ecology of practice that taps student strengths, embeds content knowledge seamlessly, and places instruction and curriculum decisions squarely in the classroom—with a teacher who's both an expert facilitator and a committed partner in learning. If these are the kinds of educators we want, however, we aren't going to get them by handing teachers predetermined benchmarks, scripts, and pacing charts, then monitoring their students' test scores for success.

Turning Teaching into a Profession

It will take a reconceptualization of our beliefs about teachers and teaching to accomplish the goal of creating a professional teaching force—a real sea change. Although such a shift may seem idealistic, other nations have been able to transform societal perspectives on what good teaching looks like, with skillful teachers taking professional responsibility for their students.
Classroom teachers in the United States, however, remain at the end of the decision-making funnel, their moral reasons for pursuing teaching compromised by tangled policy.
What would happen if teaching and learning were the primary consideration in all education policy, research, and funding? What if we didn't measure teacher effectiveness, but focused on teaching for a change? What if
  • Designing curriculum were informed by teacher judgment about developmental appropriateness, student engagement, and the best tools to reach content standards?
  • Standards for teaching practice were developed around performance in the classroom, rather than credentialing or standardized testing outcomes?
  • Teacher evaluation included periodic on-site peer review for all teachers, novice and veteran, with an eye toward improving practice? What if teachers developed portfolios filled with evidence of their impact on student learning to share with colleagues?
  • Professional development were selected and created by practitioners themselves? What if lively dialogue about education issues affecting their students were a regular feature of each day, informed by teachers' own scholarship and experience?
  • Mentoring and induction programs were established with graduated responsibilities for novices?
  • Teachers themselves guided the reshaping of the daily work of schools, including issues of scheduling, differentiated staffing, nonstandard calendars, hiring, and negotiating the use of available resources?
  • Incentives were established to encourage K–12 teachers to write and speak publicly on crucial issues in education and do action research, creating an ethos of discourse and debate? What if every teacher were expected to contribute to this collective knowledge?
None of these requires comprehensive legislative change or significant reallocation of resources. It would be possible—in a generation, perhaps—to completely restructure teaching as a genuine profession, one school or district at a time.

Start Now

So how can teachers become professional change agents? I would suggest that teachers themselves are the only ones who can lead a movement toward articulating and demonstrating the complexity, importance, and power of creative teaching in improving the lives of the children we teach.
We can do more than just imagine a culture of innovation. We can take small steps every day toward demonstrating those cognitive, collegial, and moral behaviors of professionalism by
  • Consciously making time for the big picture in education and staying abreast of issues of practice and policy. It's just as important for teachers to be familiar with the impact of national trends—the Common Core State Standards or the debate over teacher preparation, for example—as it is for them to be cognizant of in-school issues.
  • Developing personal learning networks. Social media makes it possible to share ideas and opinions with teachers around the globe, clarify issues, and build well-researched plans for change. Facebook, Twitter, online publications, and disciplinary networks are rich resources for lesson ideas as well as advocacy.
  • Working with on-site allies. The process of identifying others who are equally passionate about the work of teaching is exhilarating. When educators do take action, it's important not to be alone or isolated.
  • Publicly demonstrating our commitment to students and our passion for their deeper learning every day. Teachers are first responders when practice shifts. Their observations about new programs, assessment models, and curricular requirements are valuable and should be solicited and presented at school board meetings, at parent gatherings, and in publications.
  • Gathering the courage to speak, and keep speaking, as experts. Few teachers enter the profession with the goal of becoming a public advocate, but avoiding public conversations about the work of teaching and learning doesn't serve children or the community well.
Trust is a resource, too—one that teachers can cultivate in their schools and communities and then use as a springboard for positive change. Relationships built on trust and expertise are at the heart of what it means to be a professional, and they enable us to move forward with confidence as change makers.
End Notes

1 McCusker, S. (2014, April 7). Teachers' most powerful role? Adding context [blog post]. Retrieved from Mind/Shift at http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/04/teachers-most-powerful-role-adding-context

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