02/23/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

Teachers Are Ready for RESPECT

By Katie Gribben

I am considered by many to be an effective teacher -- I care deeply about my students, have a wonderful relationship with them and their families, contribute to my school and district in many capacities and my students make significant academic progress on standardized tests and other benchmarks.

I love my job, but I often think about leaving the classroom.

The lack of respect, low compensation and limited opportunities for professional growth that come with being a teacher make it difficult to stay when I could pursue alternative professions with more compelling career ladders.

Therefore, it was a tremendous relief to attend the Department of Education's town hall meeting on February 15th and hear Secretary of Education Arne Duncan call loudly and clearly to change the focus of the conversation from teacher bashing to rethinking the teaching profession. Secretary Duncan articulated the vision for the next term of education reform: "Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America's most important profession but America's most respected profession. That is a lofty goal -- and we are deadly serious about getting there."

Project RESPECT is centered on transforming the teaching profession. Its aims are ambitious -- in short, Duncan is speaking about an overhaul of how this nation currently thinks about and treats teachers and teaching.

RESPECT's goals are undoubtedly worthwhile. Although the importance of education is often discussed, it bears repeating. A strong primary and secondary education provides students with knowledge and skills that can lead to self-sufficiency and adult achievement. There are over 16 million children growing up in poverty in the US and research shows that a high-quality education is one of the keys to escaping poverty. Research has demonstrated that with three great teachers for three consecutive years, students living in poverty can score similarly on standardized tests as their middle-class peers. Consequently, it is essential that we provide and retain the best educators for our nations' classrooms; teachers are the linchpin to improving schools and our society.

Given the incredible importance of a quality education and the critical impact effective teachers can make on student outcomes, it is surprising to see the teaching profession consistently disparaged. National conversations regarding teacher compensation or education policy often include inaccurate and demeaning generalizations about teaching. Faulty perceptions that teaching is easy or that teachers work few hours, receive excessive vacation, and as a recent study startlingly concluded, are overpaid compared to similarly qualified peers are damaging to the effectiveness of the education system.

As a high-performing teacher, these generalizations have been demoralizing to me and to many of my colleagues. This derision of the teaching profession along with a lack of job growth and leadership opportunities leads many highly effective teachers to leave the classroom.

The RESPECT project proposes to recruit and attract high-achieving educators, revamp induction programs, and provide a career ladder that is robust with growth opportunities, recognition and compensation for excellent teachers. These are the exact measures that will keep excellent teachers in the classroom.

Although RESPECT is extremely encouraging, it is still very much in its nascent stages. Secretary Duncan repeatedly called upon teachers to lead this transformation, yet he did not specify how teachers would be involved in the planning and implementation of RESPECT. Right now, there is a lack of leadership opportunities for highly effective teachers, another reason many depart from the profession. Given that RESPECT may not have influence on teacher retention for several years, having an opportunity for immediate leadership could help keep effective teachers in the classroom. To provide a solution to these issues, states should be incentivized to create "Advisory Committees" wherein groups of teacher-leaders obtain feedback from other teachers and create recommendations for the RESPECT project. Advisory Committees would allow teachers to be involved in the planning and implementation of RESPECT, while providing leadership positions for effective teachers that might keep them in the classroom.

By committing to including teacher voices in this conversation and creating immediate opportunities for leadership, Secretary Duncan would be both providing an incentive for effective teachers to stay in the classroom, as well as gaining valuable feedback and information from those of us who will feel the most impact from project RESPECT.

This is a pivotal moment in America's public education system. Student achievement is essential to improving our society and teachers are the key to that success. With one million teachers on the verge of retirement, this is the time to show commitment to reshaping the teaching profession. In the past decade, the demands of the teaching profession have dramatically changed -- for the first time in the history of public schooling, we expect teachers to be responsible for dramatic student outcomes. We must now change the way we think about and treat teachers so that the profession is on par with the importance of an excellent education.

Katie Gribben is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at a public school in Cambridge, MA. She is currently a Teach Plus Boston Teaching Policy Fellow.