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Professional Opinion

Can we make the teaching profession noble again?

We need to stop blaming teachers and focus on increasing quality
Caroline Lewis spent 22 years as a science teacher and school principal.
Caroline Lewis spent 22 years as a science teacher and school principal.

Teaching is losing its magic. Every year, the profession loses some of our most effective colleagues prematurely. Moreover, we fail to attract enough college graduates who have the talent and passion for teaching.

Many of us blame the education reform movement for this. Leaders may be well intentioned, but they ignore the reality that successful public education requires development of three key pillars—think of them as though they were the legs of a stool:

  • the ability and readiness-to-learn of the students
  • the quality of the teachers and
  • the culture and tone of the school (leadership, resources, parental involvement, and so on)

We seem fixated on only one of the pillars—teachers—and not in ways that improve quality, but only in ways that undermine, place blame and seriously demoralize too many good people. Somehow, in the debate on what constitutes successful education, the spotlight has become laser-focused on a teacher’s ability to get students to pass tests.

True teaching is hard to measure

We have to recognize that effective teaching is about so much more. What is easily measurable isn’t always what’s significant in most teaching-learning environments.

What a teacher contributes to an individual student’s attitude, ambition, choices, career paths and so on may never truly be known. Teacher effectiveness is a complex issue—as I detail in my book (Just Back Off And Let Us Teach, 2014, Dog Ear Publishing)—and many of the rich classroom exchanges between teachers and their students go undocumented.

For too many, teaching is now reduced to robotic drilling of information in preparation for tests. The ideal of a teacher as a caring, scholarly, creative, pedagogical wizard is not the image being presented or acknowledged.

The joy of teaching has been diminished, and the wind has been knocked out of teachers’ sails. These teachers do not feel validated, much less fulfilled, and are vulnerable to burnout and despair in the current climate.

Racing to the top

We must rethink our education strategy and change the current debate. I would like to remind those who disagree with me that we cannot reform public education if our pool of effective teachers continues to shrink.

We must extol, not vilify, teaching to restore nobility to the profession. I fell in love with teaching in my early teens as I first saw the opportunity teachers had to educate, engage and make a difference in learning, lives and schools.

Back in the 1970s teaching was still considered an honorable profession, and it called out to me.

Let’s change the focus of education reform, attend to all three legs of the stool, and put people like me on the team in charge of the teaching pillar.

Here’s what I would do:

  • First, I would stop spending millions of education reform dollars on designing new systems of instruction and measurement every few years at local, state and federal levels.
  • Redirect this money to teacher salaries and meaningful professional development for teachers and administrators, including department chairpersons.
  • Work, over the next five years, to raise the starting salary for teachers to $75,000. This, no doubt, will go a long way to attracting and retaining the brightest and the best.
  • Require a certified master’s degree in education for all teachers, and fund or heavily subsidize it for the brightest applicants with the talent and passion for teaching. 
  • Recognize our effective teachers and weed out those who don’t belong.

If we do this and make effective teaching a priority, we might much more quickly race to the top and leave far fewer children behind.

Caroline Lewis spent 22 years as a science teacher and school principal.