Not Rocket Science

Let’s start by conceding that teachers are not among the most respected professions in American society. Perhaps they used to be. Perhaps they are in other cultures. They are not in ours. In case you are tempted to disagree, stop to consider the following: teacher award programs (and there are many) get light press coverage and are not broadcast live in primetime to massive television audiences. Movie and television awards shows are covered in that way. Speaking of, how many television shows do you watch about lawyers or detectives or singing or cooking or real estate improvement/sales? How many shows about teaching?  And how many of those few shows about school portray teachers as the admirable protagonists? Instead of pointing out more evidence let me trust that you already know that teachers are not respected throughout our society in the way that professions and the professionals in them that require similar training and skills are.

We say teaching “is not rocket science!” When we are frustrated that our kid’s teacher hasn’t responded to our request for a conference. Or when we hear that local teachers are asking for a raise. Or when the teacher across the hall does not make it to the team meeting. Or when (as administrators) we discover a mistake a teacher has made. For most teachers, this attitude comes at you from all around – from parents, from colleagues, from administrators.

Setting aside the rhetoric for a moment, that attitude is demoralizing. The attitude that says “quit messing around and get it right” and “if there’s a problem, it’s either because you aren’t good enough or aren’t trying hard enough”. The problem with treating an entire profession this way – from the outside and from the inside – is that that is the perfect way to destroy the profession. Highly talented, bright, passionate young people don’t have to become teachers. More and more of the great ones are deciding not to. Enrollment in the college of education in the town where I live is down 50% since 2010. What’s not rocket science is what will happen when all the teachers who have been teaching more than fifteen or twenty years retire. The capacity of us all to ignore or simply not care about this issue is astonishing. Education is not a luxury commodity. It is not, for example, collegiate or professional sports. But we venerate our athletes and care enough about what they have to say to debate whether or not they should say it. The voices of teachers generally do not matter at all.

The great irony is that teaching is, in fact, more cognitively and emotionally demanding and more complex work that rocket science or brain surgery.  I mean this literally.  Consider for a moment a partial list of what is expected of every teacher every day:

  • Create a written plan for teaching and learning for that day (subject to review and approval by administrators and others).
  • “Build relationships” with students: use their names (pronounced correctly), interact with them about things that matter to them, learn and keep in mind any factor that might impact how they learn – learning styles, cultural background, physical or cognitive disability, etc.
  • Conduct lessons that provide students multiple opportunities to apply what they learn, problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. The lessons must also be engaging, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, and technology-rich.
  • Have a plan that is “differentiated”. Plan to teach a group of students whose readiness to learn the skill, concept, or content varies widely. “Individualizing” instruction to meet the very different learning needs of each student is the responsibility of the teacher.
  • Maintain a positive and safe learning environment. Take a room full of children, young adolescents or teenagers and set conditions wherein they ignore all the distractions that are part of being alive, focus on the learning activities, and interact only in productive and positive ways with each other. Keep all social and emotional burdens the students are carrying from interfering with learning.
  • Keep up on your recordkeeping. Record grades in a timely manner. Document progress on a huge range of data points for a variety of purposes. Provide students descriptive feedback on their work.
  • Attend one or more meeting. Faculty meetings. Team meetings. Data meetings. Committee meetings. Planning meetings. Professional development. Etc
  • Supervise students in a non-instructional setting. Lunch duty. Bus duty. Hall duty. Etc.
  • Communicate clearly and frequently with everybody: students, parents, administrators, colleagues, etc.

If you are not an educator, you probably think this list is exaggerated or does not represent a set of daily responsibilities that is particularly demanding. If you are an educator, you will doubtlessly point out that the list is missing more than it includes.

Here’s my whole point: we should all start acting like teaching is a profession that sets insanely unreasonable expectations. This is not even to argue that teaching should be less complex; merely to argue that our actions should demonstrate that we recognize and respect the complexity. To that end, I have a handful of recommendations.

Teachers
1. Treat your colleagues with the respect they deserve. The greenest, strugglingest teacher is great at some part of teaching. Approach each encounter with your peers as if they have something to teach you – because they do. That type of respect rubs off. Worse case scenario, you will create a culture inside your school in which every member of the team goes through the day knowing they are held in esteem by their peers.

2. Find ways to make your work visible.  When someone is upset with you, it is pointless to complain about your workload – that comes across as deflection or whining. Consider a more proactive approach such as using a class social media account to highlight the learning (and range of activity) that goes on in your class every day.

Parents
1. Take time to consider your interactions with teachers. You write them thank you notes. You give them gifts. But do you treat them with the honor you afford your child’s doctor? When your child gets a bad grade or into trouble at school what assumptions do you make – that you need to know how to help your child correct a mistake or that you need to find and fix the school’s mistake? Please don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior from educators; just give them the same benefit of the doubt you give other professionals you trust.

2. Watch how you talk about school. Life is messy. Life is frustrating. Your child is not perfect. Don’t let your frustration shade the way you talk about your child’s teachers. What we say influences what we think. What we think becomes what we believe. What we collectively believe about teachers matters.

Administrators
1. Act like teachers are the most important adults in your building. They are. Please, I beg you, stop treating teachers like minions and worker bees. This is a problem not merely because it is hurtful to them, it’s a problem because it doesn’t work. If you are getting indignant right now with thoughts like “I would never treat a teacher that way”, I am probably talking to you. Let me ask a few questions. Do you work for “buy-in” from teachers when you are implementing something new or do your school’s best ideas and plans come from teachers in response to problems you identified together? How often do you use the words “to fidelity”? Which list is longer, the teachers who have left your school in the last three years or the list of teachers waiting for a spot to open up so they can join your team? Yes, you are legally responsible for everything that goes on in the school. I’m clear on the respect I have for principals. But telling people what to do – even when it is disguised as “training” and “consensus building” and “creating consistency” – never works. It might get you a bump in standardized test scores for a couple of years but it does not create success that is sustainable. And it stifles the potential even of the teachers who support you most loyally.

2. Hold the complexity of the job in your mind when you interact with teachers. When you “support” a teacher (or reprimand or put her/him on an action plan), you are probably not wrong about the facts. They probably didn’t post their lesson plans or objectives. They probably did handle the student behavior issue awkwardly. But was your response in proportion to the complexity of the job? If teaching really is vastly complex, how is it productive to treat single issues (or even multiple issues) as grounds for a “get better quick” plan. Approaches like this imply that this issue at hand is so important that it outweighs all the strengths the teacher has. Saying “You are doing a lot of things well but … [action plan]” is the same as saying “Nothing matters except/as much as the thing you aren’t great at yet”.

We are all conspiring together to threaten the future of public education in the way we think about, talk about and treat teachers. But it does not have to be this way. You are only responsible for you. So be different. Begin (or renew your commitment) to treat teachers like they deserve more than platitudes. Treat them like they have earned your deepest respect and admiration. Your great-grandchildren deserve it.

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