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How Should Teachers Spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

For the past several years, conversations about American public education – and how to improve it – have grown increasingly loud and contentious. In fact, there’s only one issue on which it seems all sides can agree: when it comes to the learning environment, nothing matters more than a great teacher.

It’s ironic, then, that as a society we act as though nothing matters less. We internalize the notion that “Those who can’t, teach.” We speak in two-dimensional terms that portray educators as either mythical saviors or selfish laggards. And we accept the notion that the best way to address the needs of our poorest children is to temporarily drop our smartest, most inexperienced educators into the center of communities that are not their own.

Ted Sizer, the man whose Horace series of books portrayed teachers in rich, three-dimensional terms, put it this way: “Americans underrate the craft of teaching.  We treat it mechanistically.  We expect to know how to teach fractions as though one needed only formulaic routine to do so, a way to plug in.  We talk about ‘delivering a service’ to students by means of ‘instructional strategies’; our metaphors arise from the factory and issue from the military manual. Education is apparently something someone does to somebody else.  Paradoxically, while we know that we don’t learn very well that way, nor want very much to have someone else’s definition of ‘service’ to be ‘delivered’ to us, we accept these metaphors for the mass of children.  We thus underrate the mystery, challenge, and complexity of learning and, as a result, operate schools that are extraordinarily wasteful.”

To be sure, part of the blame for this atmosphere of ignorance rests outside the schoolhouse door; but the remainder rests with teachers ourselves. If others do not fully appreciate the mystery and challenge of what we do every day, it is partly because we have failed to communicate the magic of that mystery outside of our own inner circle. And if the field we love has become wrongly obsessed with a single measure of student progress, our collective silence has extended the length of that particular fool’s errand.

The good news is that educators are starting to demonstrate how we can invest in the creation of a long-term teaching profession – not a short-term teaching force. More than half the states are rethinking how they grant teacher licenses to make the process more action-oriented. Solution-minded networks of educators are gathering at conferences like EduCon and #140edu to start crafting a different public narrative of what schools should be doing for students. And organizations like the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) are sharing videos that document what powerful teaching & learning really looks like – and requires.

And then there’s the Department of Education, which is trying to better integrate the voices and perspectives of teachers into its policymaking through the Teacher Ambassador RESPECT Program. Fellows spend a year learning about federal programs and policies, and witnessing the process by which they are designed and implemented. These teachers are then asked to share their expertise with federal staff and serve as a bridge between the work of the Department and the wishes of the field.

Gregory Mullenholz, a fifth grade Teacher from Montgomery County, Maryland, spent the 2011-2012 school year as a Fellow in Washington. To him, it’s all part of a larger effort to “change the conversation around teaching. Rather than accepted martyrdom, this is about elevating the profession. Teachers cannot sit back and hope change happens to them; we have to lead the transformation. Districts need higher quality professional development that is aligned with higher-quality evaluations. And as a profession, we cannot accept the fact that we have a shelf-life, that there comes a point where it is no longer financially sustainable to teach and we have to go get a “real job” to support our families. We have to hold our profession to a higher standard.”

Claire Jellinek, Mullenholz’s colleague in the class of 2011-2012 fellows, agrees: “Certainly one of the most significant things I’ve learned is that creating policy is aprocess,” she said. “That means it’s on us to help spark the conversations that need to happen to effect meaningful change.”

If he were still alive, Ted Sizer would agree. “It is a radical idea that all children grow at the same rate and in the same way and thus can thereby be accurately classified and ‘graded’ in narrow, standardized ways,” he cautioned. “It is a radical idea that the power of a child’s mind can be plumbed by a single test and reduced to a small clutch of numbers. It is a radical idea that people of any age can learn well in crowded, noisy, and ill-equipped places. It is a radical idea that serious learning can best emerge from a student’s exposure to short blasts of ‘delivered’ content, each of less than an hour in length, and unified by no coherent set of common ideas. And it is a radical idea that a child can learn what is needed to live well in a complex society with schooling that encompasses barely half the days of a calendar year, and that ignores the opportunities —or lack of opportunities— available to each child.”

Fellow teachers – how will we contribute to a different sort of conversation about what it is we do and raise the standards of our own profession at the same time? What stories must we tell, and what innovations must we help create?

The waiting is over. It’s time to be the change.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create hea...