For Students To Excel, The U.S. Must Respect Teachers

If our best teachers are forced into choosing between earning a living wage and continuing to teach, our profession and our schools have a big problem.
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This month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan formally launched a new initiative in the U.S.
Department of Education to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession. It's called project RESPECT,
an acronym that stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative
Teaching. RESPECT is all about, well, respect -- about making sure that teaching is not only one of
America's most important professions but one of America's most respected professions.

Unlike some past federal initiatives, RESPECT is not a top-down program. It seeks to directly engage with
teachers and principals all across the country in a national conversation about teaching. For too long, those voices from the classroom have been missing from the conversation in school reform. As a 2011 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow -- on loan to the US Department of Education from Twinbrook
Elementary School in Montgomery County, MD -- I have now held discussions with hundreds of teachers
about our profession's greatest needs. The department's 16 Teaching Ambassador Fellows have been
spanning the country, listening to teachers to get their thoughts and advice on how our school systems
can do a better job of attracting, retaining, supporting, and rewarding the best teachers, and of how to
better support teachers seeking to improve their instructional practice.

The teachers we have consulted tell us consistently that they are pursuing two goals. Their first, and
overarching goal, is to boost student learning. Yet to achieve that aim, teachers tell us that they should
be working far more collaboratively with their colleagues to shape and strengthen the profession.
Strong leadership from the principal, meaningful professional development, and the opportunity to
be paid as skilled professionals all influence whether teachers pursue teaching careers or leave the
classroom for other opportunities. Although no one goes into teaching to earn big salaries, the teachers
I speak with want to earn enough to have a family, a car, a house, and still stay a teacher. I'm with them.
If our best teachers are forced into choosing between earning a living wage and continuing to teach,
our profession and our schools have a big problem. And we can't blame teachers for leaving. Teachers
often graduate from college burdened with large student loans, only to enter a profession that has
low salaries and offers little room for advancement both professionally and financially. In some school
districts, teachers effectively have to wait for years, and sometimes decades, to earn enough to buy
a home. And unfortunately, today's salary schedule rewards longevity on the job but not a teacher's
effectiveness at increasing and accelerating student learning.

From day one, many teachers are put in front of a classroom of students with too little preparation
for the job and with too little support. Secretary Duncan has pointed out that more than 60 percent
of teachers report that their teacher preparation programs did not prepare them for the realities of
managing a classroom. Imagine how quickly reform in law or medicine would happen if the system had
doctors performing surgery their first day on the job, and poorly-prepared lawyers going to court to
represent their clients.

Why bother with reshaping this profession of teaching? Why, in a time of tight budgets, would America
commit $5 billion dollars to RESPECT, a competitive program that would encourage states to come up
with their best programs for strengthening the teaching profession?

The simple answer is that education is the surest path to making American students and workers more
globally competitive, especially in a knowledge-based economy.

Other nations where students are out-performing U.S. students do much more to recruit top students
to be teachers, prepare them more rigorously, do more to reward good teaching, and provide better
professional development. In short, they are doing much more than the U.S. currently does to respect
and elevate the teaching profession -- and they doing far more than our system does to encourage
collaboration among teachers.

The RESPECT program seeks to revamp the teaching profession for the 21st century. It is grounded in the
knowledge that the single-most important in-school factor in the success of your child academically is
the person who greets them at the classroom door each morning.

When teachers succeed, children succeed. But when teachers are isolated and left to fend for
themselves, children and schools struggle. When teachers are continually evaluated in a slipshod,
ineffective manner -- as is the norm today -- they will continue to go without helpful feedback about
how to improve their craft. And if teachers aren't allowed meaningful input in the direction of their
classroom, their school, or their profession, then we shouldn't be surprised when schools and teachers
fail to provide a world-class education. The mere fact that teachers have so little say in the policies that
affect them is one sign that teachers are not treated today as highly skilled-professionals.

Teachers know that the status quo in schools and classrooms today is inadequate, both for students and
themselves. This isn't so much a cry for more money as it is an appeal for more autonomy -- for more
collaborative engagement, and yes, for more RESPECT.

Most teachers care deeply about their students, about stimulating their curiosity and stoking a hunger
for learning. They are dissatisfied with the state of the profession today and looking to strengthen it.
And as Thomas Edison pointed out, "Discontent is the first necessity of progress." Today, I'm hearing
that discontent from many teachers about the profession -- which suggests that maybe we are ready for
some progress.

That's how this teacher sees it -- and I'm glad, for a change, to be a teacher who gets to add his voice to
this national conversation about strengthening the teaching profession. It's a national conversation that
is long overdue.

Greg Mullenholz is a teacher and U.S.
Department of Education Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Montgomery
County Schools in Maryland.

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