Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession.
Arne Duncan, 2012
While nearly everyone agrees that teachers are important to society, teachers in this country don't get much respect. A recent survey shows only 34 percent of U.S. teachers feel valued. The figure for other countries such as South Korea or Singapore is 67 percent.
The U.S. Department of Education decided to fix the problem with some new programs--RESPECT (2012) and Teach to Lead (2014). Arne Duncan made statements like the one above. But four years later teachers play only a token role in policy-making, their voices are largely unheard, and teaching is still held in low esteem.
The organization StudentsFirst advises us, with unintentional irony, how to "elevate the teaching profession."
Teachers need targeted, high-quality support and professional development that continually evaluates their progress --highlighting their strengths and helping them improve their craft.
Duncan's RESPECT program does something similar, praising "master teachers," but cautioning that they had better be rated highly-effective in three out of five years or they will lose the title--a sort of respect but verify.
All these efforts to show how much we value teachers fall flat for the same reason: They claim to respect teachers without trusting them. And respect without trust turns out to be merely words.
But learning to trust teachers will be hard. For decades, reformers have promoted the notion that teachers cannot be trusted. Ferret out weak teachers so we can fire them. Administer doses of professional development only to fix broken teachers. Create higher standards to hold teachers accountable. Evaluate teachers continually, obsessively, and often bizarrely, so they do their jobs. Is it any wonder the public distrusts teachers?
Rebuilding trust requires action, not words, and the process may take years. But while it will be hard and long, there is a simple way to begin.
Find teachers who don't need fixing. Select them carefully, not by shallow criteria like test scores, but by meaningful criteria like content knowledge, craft (pedagogy), and understanding of students. Find teachers who are experts, but who are also eager to improve, not because somebody tells them to, but because it's in their professional character. These are "Master Teachers" who deserve the name.
Now bring them together in communities to exchange ideas, talk about the profession, and learn about new developments in their fields. They participate in workshops, seminars, and professional learning teams. They compare notes and perspectives--high school with middle school, math with science, history with English, advantaged and disadvantaged. They interact as professionals are meant to interact.
Here is the most important part: The teachers are in control. They make their own choices about their own professional growth--which workshops they attend, whether they want to focus on craft or content, or how they bring this back to their schools. Many of the workshops and seminars are created and run by the teachers themselves, often co-led, mainly in multiple sessions. Expert scholars from outside may run some workshops as well, but that's not the primary model. This is a teacher-led community made up of scholars...whom we trust.
Master Teachers remain full-time teachers, and their extra work is done outside the normal school day, evenings or weekends. It's a major professional commitment, and teachers are compensated with an annual (and substantial) stipend for that work. That's professional too.
The communities need structure, of course, and some entity (larger than an individual school or district!) needs to select teachers, organize the workshops, and administer the program, but these details are incidental. The key is that one trusts the teachers to make the right choices. Anyone who has spent time in a quality university recognizes this as a model for the professional life of college faculty. It's part of what has made American higher education world class. It could do the same for K-12 teaching, changing the perception of the profession.
Isn't this an old idea? Sure, the term "Master Teacher" is old, used often to refer to teachers who are merely senior or assigned non-teaching work. (The RESPECT program says Master Teachers could remain teaching a few hours each day!) But this is a different kind of Master Teacher. These teachers do extra work (for example, mentoring) as a consequence, not a requirement of being a Master Teacher.
What about the students? This is about the students! Providing opportunities to Master Teachers makes their professional lives richer and more rewarding. That keeps them in the classroom longer, getting better. Aren't experienced, expert teachers exactly what our students need?
Why only some teachers? Given our history, building trust needs to be done in stages. We start with those who are most able to take advantage of the opportunity and areas of high needs like math and science. The missing ingredient in education reform today is patience. This is long-term change, and the ultimate goal is to change the way we view the entire teaching profession.
Is this a pipe dream? The good news is that programs like these already exist for more than 2000 math and science teachers in New York City, the rest of New York State, and several other cities across the nation. They are thriving. They work. Master Teachers in NYC are less than half as likely to leave the profession as other similar teachers. Teachers are enthusiastic and engaged. They change the culture of their schools. They inspire their students. And they feel respected.
But we need to make such programs part of our education infrastructure across the nation. If we truly want to respect our teachers, we need more than words--we must learn to trust them. We can start with Master Teachers.