Teachers: The Most Valuable Human Resource

This is a strange time for teachers.

A few years ago in my home state of Alabama, a state senator suggested that raising teacher pay would violate biblical principle. Fast forward to today and Democrats and Republicans have found something they can at least temporarily agree on.

The second cost of living raise for teachers in eight years isn't much to celebrate, but I will count it as a win.

Googling the news for "teacher pay raise" results in just over 400,000 hits. Admittedly, not all of the results are positive. On February 18th lawmakers in South Dakota failed to raise teacher pay by one vote. But that state is an outlier (and they are still fighting over the small raise), as dozens of others are set to increase the starting pay for teachers in an effort to thwart a growing national teacher shortage.

As a former teacher, a scholar who has researched teacher happiness, and now a member of a team addressing the teacher shortage head-on, I can say with some authority that raising teacher pay is a good start, but for many teachers the money isn't the issue.

Poor working conditions, lack of autonomy, and twenty years of failed, "high stakes" reforms are weightier reasons for "teacher flight."

And we need to be clear that "teacher flight" is only part of the problem. There aren't enough individuals committing themselves to educating our nation's children. It should come as no surprise that after decades of teacher bashing, fewer and fewer college students are entering the profession.

There is, however, a silver lining to the perpetually dark cloud that has been hovering over teaching. In December, when Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind (NCLB), they made significant changes to Title II funding, including a new focus on teacher recruitment and retention, two areas that are Human Resource functions.

The federal shift away from a myopic focus on curriculum, professional development, and testing (it's still there, just not as glaring) and towards finding and keeping great teachers is the most hopeful and perhaps the strangest outcome of the legislation.

Why strange?

Strange, as defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary:

1. Different from what is usual, normal, or expected

2. Not known, heard, or seen before

3. Not entirely comfortable or well

Number 3 is the outlier here, as anyone familiar with federal educational policy knows that a focus on finding and keeping teachers is unusual and unknown (definitions 1 and 2), at least over the past four decades.

What makes me "not entirely comfortable" about the Title II provisions for teacher recruitment and retention is that those provisions will be as ineffective as the last reauthorization of ESSA (formerly known as NCLB) unless contextualized in a larger educational ecosystem.

Said differently, if districts, states, and the country don't make sweeping changes to public schools and the cities housing them, recruiting more teachers is going to be a waste of time and money and trying to retain those teachers will be a fool's errand.

At a macro level, the country must address the economic devastation in cities like Detroit and Chicago, parts of which have become war zones. Fixing teacher recruitment and retention in such areas cannot be done without fixing the cities.

While one might want to imagine that there are cadres of bright young teachers eager to go into such areas, even TFA is having a hard time recruiting, and its corps members aren't exactly known for retention.

At the micro level, school districts are going to have to change the way they treat teachers if they want to attract and retain the best ones. While pay increases are a good start, changing the antiquated salary schedules must take place immediately, as time spent on the job doesn't mean you are improving year after year. Local districts can't make such a change without state support.

Great teachers should be rewarded for being great teachers, and they can be identified as such without an over-reliance on test scores. Digital portfolios offer a more robust picture of what goes on in teacher's classrooms than any standardized test could ever possibly hope to deliver, and parents want to see actual artifacts of student growth more than they want to see numbers.

Show us the projects. Display the Civil War diorama. Play the video documentary. Demonstrate pedagogical excellence. This vivid transparency destroys numerical accountability.

While financial incentives may work for some teachers, increased autonomy and the ability to pursue customized professional development are equally important to others, and retaining great teachers will require both.

It also strikes me as strange that we treat teachers like they don't deserve or require the same types of breaks that other professionals receive. Many teachers are required to perform lunch duty and forgo planning periods. We don't require doctors to eat with their patients or lawyers to make sure their clients get safely into their cars. Schools should rely on para-professionals to cover non-teaching duties, freeing teachers to do what they spend significant time training to do, teach.

What may be the strangest outcome of the teacher shortage and ESSA is that, for the first time in our country's history, we are going to have to treat teachers the same way we treat any other resource. In this case, it is a human resource.

Teachers are becoming rare. That which is rare has value. Schools that want the best teachers are going to have to treat those teachers as valuable resources, resources who are essential for the future of our communities and our country.

It seems strange to have to point this out, but those of us committed to educational reform must do so.

(This post originally appeared on Nancy Flanagan's Teacher in a Strange Land.)