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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

Perspectives / Taking Stock of the Teaching Life

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      What is the status of the profession in May 2016—not from the perspectives of pundits and policymakers, but according to those who view teaching and school leadership up close, enjoy their profession, complain about it, study it, and live it?
      Here are the findings. As you'll see, some are ups, some are downs, and some are decidedly both.
      It's a stressful profession. Although you may not have to confront the physical dangers fire fighters and pilots face every day, teachers, principals, and administrators are responsible for many children and to many adults, our authors note (Tomlinson, Danielson, DuFour, Collins, Anderson). What you do or don't do affects the well-being of many, and you have to make dozens, maybe hundreds, of unscripted decisions every day. In addition, you grapple with understanding how to adapt your schools and instructional practices to changing needs. You experience how poverty, achievement gaps, and lack of resources affect your students on a personal level.
      Exacerbating these challenges, recent factors have chipped away at the traditional satisfactions of teaching—working with kids and teaching content to students. Richard DuFour blames both a testing culture that leads some teachers to cut back on creative and in-depth teaching as well as disempowerment (not having the resources to do your job and being blamed for things outside your control). As DuFour says, teaching is an embattled profession. Too often, he notes, a "siege mentality" makes educators shy away from embracing their own power to influence.
      Teamwork is in—and it works. Twenty years ago, most teachers worked alone behind closed classroom doors. Today, whether they are discussing school culture, planning lessons, or learning from student work, many practitioners are getting together for a purpose and seizing the autonomy to solve problems. They are also observing one another's teaching. Susan Moore Johnson and colleagues cite research that shows that effective teamwork can improve teacher retention, student achievement, and teacher instruction if the work is purposeful and leaders are supportive.
      The ineffective versions of collaboration include "PLC-lite" and "excessive meeting culture." If meetings are unproductive and time-consuming, teachers may yearn for the days when they could "close their doors and teach."
      Evaluation, neither an art nor science (yet), is improving. Charlotte Danielson, whose framework has shaped many evaluation processes, notes that evaluation should be one way that educators learn from one another how to get better, but not the only way. Of the 5.3 million U.S. public school teachers, about 6 percent don't meet basic standards. But what of the 94 percent, Danielson asks? That's where an improved form of evaluation—not meant to force teachers out but to encourage them to reflect, self-assess, and hold professional conversations about new skills—is needed.
      Morgaen Donaldson cites research that shows educators believe that the new multiple measures are far superior to being observed once a year, or receiving a rating, but zero feedback. With the Every Student Succeeds Act devolving authority for evaluation to the local level, she wonders whether educators will commit to improving evaluation processes long enough to reap their benefits.
      Retention, recruitment, attrition—oh my. Data show that the teaching force has slowly become less stable in recent years, Richard Ingersoll and colleagues note. Teachers' attrition rate is similar to that of police officers, far higher than lawyers, engineers, architects, pharmacists, and academics. Establishing positive working conditions makes all the difference in enticing educators to stay.
      More distressing notes: Amid growing concerns about teacher shortages, notes that fewer high school grads plan to become educators. Statistics also show that few minority candidates are entering the profession.
      Learning is the bright spot. Many authors report promising practices: clinical training that shifts away from teaching about teaching and toward teaching how to teach; mentoring programs that help teachers become more self-directed and resourceful (p. 60, online); professional development that is innovative and self-propelled—and is making rock stars of outstanding new beginners. And, educators do keep learning throughout their careers, John Papay and Matthew Kraft persuasively establish.
      Teaching drives all other professions, Richard DuFour tells us. Now is a pivotal point for educators to insist on driving their own profession. Continuous learning is vital, especially for a profession devoted to teaching others how to learn.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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