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Getting Creative to Celebrate Great Teaching

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By Jonathan Alfuth

Two months into my second year of teaching, I feel much more confident in my ability to do my job than I did last year. I'm overjoyed to see my students learning and excited by the progress they are making every day, even in the early weeks of school.

But even though I truly enjoy my work with students, I face numerous daily challenges that threaten to drown out my joy and enthusiasm -- like not having enough funds available to take my students on that college tour that I know has the potential to change their perspective on their futures.

It's also disheartening when I hear people deride my school and by extension, the hard work that my students and I do each and every day in my classroom. All of this can at times cause me to question my commitment to a profession that seems under-resourced and under-appreciated.

I know that I'm not alone in this feeling. The 2011 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that teacher job satisfaction is at its lowest point in two decades and has dropped 15 points in the last two years.

The high level of teacher job dissatisfaction comes at a time when state and local budgets are stretched almost to the breaking point. Many traditional teacher support strategies, such as pay increases and expanded school and classroom resources, rely on increased funding. These strategies are simply not realistic given our current constraints.

As a result, states and school districts need to get creative. They need to think outside the box to increase teacher job satisfaction without requiring lots of extra funding.

My district, Memphis City Schools, has recently implemented some promising strategies to improve teacher job satisfaction without significant public spending increases. Many of these strategies could easily be implemented by other school districts.

First, Memphis is in the process of taking new and innovative steps to address the lack of professional and financial advancement within the teaching profession. Teachers and the district are working together to create positions that would increase pay and the professional responsibilities of our highest performing teachers without taking them out of the classroom. Additionally, the district is currently working on a new compensation system that would allow new teachers to be paid increasingly based on performance, while enabling current teachers to opt in or remain in the current compensation system.

Anecdotally, many successful teachers I talk to voice their dissatisfaction with the fact that they feel they need to leave teaching to advance professionally. If we truly want to keep these teachers in the classroom, which we must, it's crucial that we provide leadership opportunities for these teachers so they can advance within the teaching profession.

Second, teachers in Memphis have opportunities to contribute to the policy decisions that impact our ability to deliver quality classroom instruction. Recently, the Memphis Education Association played an instrumental role in creating and refining the new teacher observation rubric, which informs how we structure our classroom practices and influences our end of year evaluations.

Memphis City Schools also makes itself open to and supportive of innovation in its teaching corps. For example, a group of Memphis art teachers created a portfolio system to substitute for school-wide student growth data that comes from classes they do not teach. This self-created portfolio then plays a significant role in their evaluations and is available for adoption by any district in the state of Tennessee.

Last but not least, MCS has put forth a strong effort to recognize teachers' importance to our city. Last year, MCS created the Prestige Award. These awards go to teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty to serve to their students and their communities. Winners are selected by their fellow teachers. More than 4,000 Memphis educators voted on this year's 134 winners, and the second prestige awards event was held recently.

Not only is quality teaching being recognized among our peers, but it's also being recognized publicly in Memphis: Last year, the district launched the "I Teach. I Am" campaign to elevate teachers across the city, which includes photos of teachers on billboards and slogans like "I teach. I am leading the change." These images not only showcase award-winning teachers, but also celebrate the diversity of teachers across the district and share their many stories. One of the featured teachers, Memphis' Allyson Chick, was recently named the Tennessee Teacher of the Year -- the first Memphis City Schools teacher to receive the honor in 29 years. Not only is Memphis recognizing the excellent teachers in its midst, but now the state is, too.

I'm not personally on a billboard. But it still means a lot to me to see my profession recognized and appreciated by my city. And even more importantly, I know now that if I work hard to become a top-tier teacher, I can advance my career within the teaching profession. I can not only be a leader within my school, but also contribute to conversations about high-level policy decisions that impact us on a daily basis.

All of these efforts make it much more likely that I will stay in the classroom long-term.

Teachers are down these days, and budgets are depleted. To keep current teachers and attract new ones, school districts across the country must get creative to show their teachers that they are valued and supported. Memphis is already doing it. My hope is that my district can provide a model for what's possible, and raise respect for teachers across the country.

Jonathan Alfuth teaches high school mathematics in Memphis City Schools and is a member of the Teach Plus Network.