How Teaching Has Changed

By Guest – Tom

Back in the 80s I drove a 1966 Plymouth Valiant. It was slow, ugly, comfortable and simple. When I looked under the hood, there were about four different items and even I could figure out what each of them was supposed to do. Now I drive a 1996 Geo Prizm. Looking under that hood is like looking into a human brain. There are at least 175 different items and I have no idea what any of them do. I’m not even sure which thing is the engine.

Cars have changed. So has teaching. Specifically, I can think of three major changes happening right now that are having – and will have – a major impact on how teachers do their jobs.

First of all, job security is over. That’s clear. When I was in college, there was an implicit bargain struck by those of us who went into teaching: we would sacrifice the opportunity to get rich and settle instead for the security of knowing that we would always have a job. And for the most part, that’s been true. No one got rich working in a classroom, and unless you get caught on video performing a felony, you’ll get to keep your job. But those days are coming to an end. That ship, if it hasn’t already sailed, is about to leave the dock. Teachers who want to keep teaching will have to keep teaching well. Thank God.

Which leads me to the second major change: teacher unions will have to either change or risk becoming completely irrelevant. Contrary to myth, teacher unions do not have an agenda separate from, and independent to, their membership. They do their members’ bidding. And their members have consistently told them to do three things: get us more pay, give us lower class sizes and help us keep our jobs no matter what. For the most part, teacher unions have been able to deliver on only one of those mandates: job security. Salaries haven’t gone up, but class sizes have. And job security is becoming a thing we remember. In the face of this reality, what use are the unions? Personally, I’d like to see the unions take the lead on teacher evaluation, accountability and professional development. Obviously, this would be a major shift, but the seeds are already there. The NEA has played a major role in developing and promoting the National Board and just last week they released a policy statement on evaluation and accountability that, for the first time, suggests the use of student performance to evaluate teachers. I don’t know much about the AMA or the ABA, but from what I do know, both organizations are run by their own members and are deeply involved with the professional development and accountability of doctors and lawyers. We need that in teaching, and the NEA needs to either step up to that plate or risk total irrelevancy.

The third major change, from my perspective, is this: teaching will become increasingly complicated while becoming increasing easier. Do you know what a “data coach” is? You will. Does your school have an MTI coordinator? It will. Do you work closely with your school’s “dean of vertical alignment?” You soon might. The teaching force is becoming more and more diverse in terms of responsibilities. When the economy turns around, money will flow back into education. But I don’t think it will go back to where it came from. Money will go to programs, not people, and most of those programs will make this field more complicated than ever, with teachers assuming different roles within the same schools. There will still be teachers working in classrooms, but the hardest part of teaching – figuring out what each student needs and providing the appropriate resources – will no longer be the sole responsibility of individual teachers. We will need to depend on one another more and more and share the responsibility for the education of every student. As a result, each individual teacher will have a more specialized – and easier – job. Technology will also complicate things while simultaneously making the job easier. I don’t need to be a great art teacher anymore; I can find excellent art instruction on-line, freeing me to do what I’m good at: monitoring student learning and adjusting the pace of instruction. Organizing this complicated network of collaboration will be difficult, but if done correctly, schools will be far more effective.

So if that’s where teaching is headed, what does that mean for you and me? I have four words of advice:

1. Get really good at what you do. No one’s going to be there to protect you if you’re an ineffective teacher. Nor should they. The days of second and third chances if you fail are over, along with the notion that a graduate degree or experience is a proxy for teacher competency. You are essentially only as good as your last lesson. Whether that’s good or bad is a subject we’ve debated frequently on this blog, but in the end it doesn’t really matter; if you’re a good teacher, you have little to worry about, but if you’re bad, either leave or get better.

2. Get really good at collaboration. Learn how to work with other teachers, because that’s where this profession is heading. The days when you could close the door to your classroom and deal only with your students might still be with us, but I think that’s going to change, and quickly. Get used to it.

3. Tell your story. When I see teaching as portrayed in the media, it’s clear that the public has no idea what we do. Most classrooms shown on TV look like the places where Beaver Cleaver learned to read, and ironically, these shows are produced by people who are too young to have ever even seen Leave it to Beaver! We don’t stand in front of blackboards, facing five rows of desks anymore. We manage a constantly changing mélange of large groups, small groups, individual conferences and technology-based learning activities. But no one knows that. No one outside of our world has any idea what we really do all day. And that’s our fault. I once had a pharmacist ask me why I needed planning time, since all I do is teach the same lessons year after year. We act surprised and hurt when we aren’t appreciated for the difficult and complicated work that we do, yet most of us do nothing to spread the word. Over the past ten years, I’ve worked with dozens of National Board candidates, helping them organize and write portfolios of their teaching practice. They frequently resist the idea of telling what they do. It feels like bragging or boasting to them. To which I say, “Not if you stick to verbs. Boasting is all about adjectives. Telling your story only needs verbs.” Another thing: be careful how you “accidently” tell your story. Assigning a word-search worksheet for homework sends a clear – and hopefully inaccurate – message to parents.

4. Focus on the kids. Every change to our profession needs to pass through a very simple, yet extremely important, filter: will this program, policy or proposal have a positive effect on student learning? If so, then it’s good; if not, get rid of it. And you and I, the teachers in the field, have to be the ones to make that call.

Change is hard. I hate it. I’m the kind of guy that can eat the same breakfast, every day, forever. But change is frequently good. That ‘66 Valiant I used to have was a great car. Great because it was so simple to fix. The Geo Prizm I have now is horribly complicated. 96 prizm

But here’s the thing: I had to fix my wonderfully simple ’66 Valiant all the time. Sometimes in the middle of intersections.

And the messy, complicated Geo Prizm, with the human brain under the hood?

It’s been in the shop only once over the past 15 years.

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