Amidst all the calls for reforming our nation's schools, we rarely address the need for respect. In particular respect for teachers. As a nation, we often treat teachers as if they are the culprits for the problems we face in our nation's schools. They are not the culprits, but rather the victims of a system that rarely rewards exemplary teaching and a culture that is often at odds with excellence. Take for instance, the recent report from The Heritage Foundation (American Enterprise Institute, November 1, 2011) which suggests that teachers are significantly over paid. This reports states that teachers have less skill than that of employees of other professions with similar levels of education. Beyond the absurdity of such a statement, this kind of report is symptomatic of a pervasive lack of respect for the teaching profession that permeates our society.
If we, as a nation, want to truly improve the quality of education in our nation, then we must start by giving the profession of teaching the respect it deserves. We bemoan the fact that we have lost our footing in international comparisons to countries like Finland. However, in Finland, being a teacher is as valued as being a doctor or lawyer. Only 1 in 10 applicants to teacher training programs is actually accepted, and the teacher training process is rigorous. Further, teachers are brought into the profession through a process of mentoring until expertise is established. Such a system recognizes the multifaceted nature of good teaching. Beyond deep content knowledge, teachers have to be able to arrange the learning environment in limited space to facilitate differentiated learning opportunities; have the charisma and energy to maintain the attention and engagement of groups of children for hours on end; the ability to multitask and transition from task to task all day long; as well as manage the behavior of groups of children, many of whom do not really want to be there, do not speak English well, have learning difficulties, or have attention disorders. Anyone who is a parent can appreciate the difficulty of maintaining the attention and managing the behavior of children at any age. Now imagine doing this all day long with groups of 20 to 30 or more students. Perhaps we should add bravery to the list of attributes required of teachers.
Given the significant challenges faced by every teacher every day, we must recognize that truly effective teaching requires high levels of expertise. This expertise is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. This expertise in learned. However, our system allows teachers few opportunities to build this expertise. In our current system, once teachers achieve certification, they are placed in classrooms where they work mostly in isolation for the rest of their careers. I ask you, would you let a surgeon operate on you who had only learned how to be a surgeon by learning about it in a class, without support beyond medical school? I think not. But this is exactly what we do to teachers. In places like Finland, teachers receive ongoing coaching for up to 5 years after initial certification.
While I applaud accountability for our schools, it is simply not fair to hold teachers accountable for raising test scores without giving them support they need to improve their practice. In my experiences as a teacher and working with hundreds of teachers over the past 25 years, I can attest that teachers want to teach well, they want to do what is right for our children, but they may not possess the expertise they need to achieve these goals. This is not their fault. It is our fault. As a society, surely we value our children enough to respect the profession of teaching and provide our teachers the ongoing supports they need to become the most expert teachers in the world.
Patricia Mathes is Texas Instruments Chair of Evidence Based Education and Director of the Institute for Evidence Based Education at Southern Methodist University