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Nicole M. Gillespie, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Teaching Needs to Be a Career, Not Just a Career Starter

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In recent years, graduates of elite colleges across the country have been encouraged to think of teaching as a starter job, something to do for a couple of years as a kind of service before moving on to graduate school and/or one's long-term profession. For some providers of "alternative" routes into teaching, this conception of teaching is a powerful selling point. Today's young adults don't necessarily expect to stay in any one job for a decade or two or more. Many feel no obligation to commit to a single career path, and the idea that they can teach without committing to "being a teacher" over the long run may be extremely appealing.

However, while encouraging talented, young individuals to drop into the classroom for short stints may be well-aligned with the career plans of contemporary young adults, the long-term success of public education requires that a significant portion of the teaching force be prepared, from the start, to see it as a career.

Decades of educational research have shown that effective schools are far more than just a collection of effective individual teachers. Rather -- and echoing research findings in just about every profession -- the evidence consistently shows that the most functional institutions, including schools, are characterized by a healthy organizational culture, a shared sense of mission, shared norms of practice, and at least some degree of shared decision making. All of these characteristics are difficult to develop and maintain in a school if a significant number of teachers leave every year.

True, some teachers are shooting stars, combining natural talent with youthful energy to provide a few years of dynamic and compelling classroom instruction. Even among the most ambitious Ivy-League 20-somethings, though, such stars are relatively rare. So recruiting those people, and, once they burn out and move on, recruiting more of them, won't work to build stronger schools. What will is building a stable core of highly effective teachers who will stay put, provide stability to the school and the students, create and sustain a culture of high expectations and success, cultivate long-term relationships in the community, and provide younger colleagues with mentoring and advice grounded in years of experience.

The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) has been exploring what it takes to build a stable core to the STEM teaching profession. Over the past decade, we have developed a rigorous process to identify novice teachers who show potential to develop content knowledge needed for teaching, exemplary teaching practices and leadership capacity. We analyze transcripts, essays and letters of recommendation for these three criteria, conduct phone interviews, and finally group interviews in which candidates work collaboratively to analyze student work and videos of teaching practice.

To date, we've worked with hundreds of STEM teachers across 39 states, through our five-year fellowship program, which is designed to help them cohere and evolve into a stable cadre of teacher leaders who have the capacity to strengthen the profession and improve education for all students. These teachers are provided with sustained learning opportunities to develop STEM content knowledge for teaching and pedagogy, create learning opportunities for students, use a wide range of data to inform and improve instruction and learning, design instruction that supports individual student learning and build their leadership capacity. By engaging in a continuous process of embedded evaluation over the past 10 years, analyzing survey results, artifacts of fellows' work and their contributions to the online community, we have refined the program and distilled key learnings that have implications for the teaching profession more broadly.

A crucial feature of the fellowship program is that teachers have opportunities work with each other and with experts in science and mathematics education, establishing shared high standards and expectations of each other. Because of this constant and extended focus on sharing practice and engaging in collaborative critical reflection, the teachers we work with have formed a robust, nationwide professional network of like-minded colleagues.

Our work has taught us that providing new teachers with leadership opportunities and training has a powerful effect on keeping them in the classroom. After five years, nearly 90 percent of the teachers we support are still in classrooms -- and have significant opportunities to continue to improve their own teaching practice as well as the quality of STEM teaching in their schools and others across our network.

Our experience in developing this network has created some lessons about professional development, teacher leadership, and instructional improvement. Among our findings to date:
  • By supporting their peers through collaborative online networks, teachers can transform their own teaching strategies and deliver more creative learning strategies within their schools, districts, and beyond.
  • Trying to replicate specific programs across varied contexts will not be as effective as supporting individual teachers to connect across schools, districts, and states, to transform student learning, teacher practice, delivery of effective programs, education policy and the teaching profession more broadly.
  • Even in high-need fields, identifying and cultivating master teachers with just content knowledge is not enough. We need to seek out and support teachers who demonstrate an ability and willingness to continually improve their teaching and be potential to be leaders in the field.
  • It takes time and effort for a teacher to develop expertise and leadership capacity. A multi-year support model and a collaborative network are examples of intensive supports that have an impact on teacher development and student learning. Teachers must be given the opportunities and training to share experiences with peers and contribute to the direction of their schools and districts.
  • Systemic improvement must be grounded in the realities of teaching. KSTF's national network, including partnerships with leading researchers and practitioners, ensure that teacher-generated professional knowledge and effective practices in STEM education are shared at all levels of policy and practice.

Most importantly, our experience shows that when talented teachers have a chance to lead early in their careers, teaching doesn't have to be a starter job with a revolving door. Moreover, nurturing the talent in our classrooms can help transform how we teach key subjects, including STEM, that have turned off students though the years.