Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Teaching as a Career

Image Credit: Pixabay user, Wokandapix

I am a full time sixth grade teacher. I am also a full time PhD student in an education field. I think a lot about how these two do not play as nicely as one might think. I am lucky to be at supportive institutions (my school and university) that work around my schedule as best as possible. Still, it often feels as if I would be much better at the other if I had more time.

The farther I go in my studies the harder it is to remain in the classroom. This is not a problem unique to my position. The longer one spends in the classroom, the more pressure there is to move to administration, to a specialized position, or in my case, the academy. As a recent NPR story illuminated, pay is a major factor for this push, but it is not the only factor. Teachers look beyond the classroom in search of more prestige, greater “impact,” less stress, or maybe just change.

I do not quite understand why we have devised the conception of a K-12 teacher to be so dichotomous. Either you are a full time classroom teacher or you are not. As a administrator in the aforementioned NPR story said, “There’s not a step in the ladder between teacher and administrator.” This basically holds true for other non-teacher positions.

In a sense there are two ways to look at a career in K-12 education. Either you move through what I see as a horizontal view of career development — building one’s craft as a practicing teacher — or you jump to a vertical “career ladder.” On the horizontal axis you move from preservice teacher to that of “mentor” or “master.” At some point on this journey you are forced with a decision, be a teacher lifer or pursue the goal of moving up to that of high level administrator.

Quartz et al. (2008) problematized our understanding of teaching as a career. Through a critical examination of role changing, the authors questioned the benefits of teachers leaving the classroom for other education positions. Although these individuals bring a lot to the new roles (and stay in education), schools are (often) forced to completely replace their expertise and experience in the classroom. While we wouldn’t consider this part of the greater retention issue, it really is. We loose talented classroom teachers to positions that, even assuming their impact, are disconnected from the day to day demands of the classroom. While the differing positions associated with role changing do not always present a straight “step-up” in the profession, there is (in my opinion) much greater prestige associated with being a ‘curriculum coach’ than a teacher. I see this as a jump to the vertical axis in teaching as a career.

This is not to say that all teachers should, want to, or can stay in the classroom. Sometimes they are better suited in administration roles. Sometimes their expertise as a technology specialist or teacher on special assignment benefits many students and teachers. Sometimes their heart lies elsewhere. My basic thought here is that we should think much more about teaching as a career. How might it be possible to allow passionate teachers to both remain in the classroom and assume other roles in education? What if the standard was not to pick one axis? What would a third axis look like? 

Feiman-Nemser (2001) wrote, “if we want schools to produce more powerful learning on the part of the students we have to offer more powerful learning opportunities to teachers” (pp. 103–104). Her purpose was to show how coherent, purposeful, and participatory learning opportunities might revision teaching into a continuum of practice, essentially rethinking what it means to call teaching a career. Having opportunities for teachers to be researchers, mentors, professional development leaders, or even part-time administrators are examples of transformative learning experiences.

I think we should work to make these options available for classroom teachers. This does not mean to add more responsibilities to full time classroom teachers’ plates, but rather rethink what their days, weeks, or years look like. How might it be possible to create positions for amazing classroom teachers to teach a few classes, take on admin responsibilities, and be compensated accordingly? What would it look like if teachers spent part of their weeks writing and researching? What is classroom teachers spent some of their time working in the community? What would it look like if we rethought what a teacher career looked like?

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