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Teachers Shouldn’t Have to Be Superheroes to Get the Job Done

Teaching in public schools is difficult even in the best of times. We must redesign the job so teachers don’t have to be heroes to succeed

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As the pandemic continues to take a toll on children’s academic and emotional health, America celebrates the heroic work of its K-12 educators, even as the pressures of teaching during the pandemic have pushed many to the breaking point. But why do teachers need to be heroes in the first place? What is it about teaching in an American public school that is so difficult in the best of times — let alone in the face of a once-in-a-century global crisis?

The answer lies in the very foundations of a job that, at its core, hasn’t changed in generations, varies little from one community to the next and is not organized to meet children’s complex educational needs. Even before COVID interest in teaching was on the decline and teacher turnover, especially in the highest-poverty schools, was unsustainably high. The education system was failing too many students, especially low-income students and children of color.

The idea of changing the teaching job isn’t new. But the standard approach — narrow pilot programs in small numbers of schools that work around, rather than actually alter, system-level policies and practices — rarely creates improvements that last. Fortunately, the current moment offers unique opportunities to reimagine how school districts approach teaching and learning, with the potential for significant near- and long-term benefits for students, families and educators.

The work starts with aligning on a bold vision for the teaching job, one in which the role of the teacher is radically more dynamic, rewarding, collaborative and sustainable.

In this vision, every teacher has a manageable workload, supported by school schedules and staffing plans, which makes it possible to know and work closely with each student. Teachers are grouped in teams that share and distribute the work across a diverse collective of educators — traditional teachers, specialists, expert instructional leaders, community-based educators and others in part-time and job-sharing roles.

Armed with a clearly articulated vision for the teaching job, system leaders can identify the “catalytic entry point” that has the greatest potential for their community, based on the specific challenges students and teachers face in their communities. Catalytic entry points also enable leaders to start shifting resources toward strategies that are financially sustainable over time.

For example, a district with high teacher turnover and many inexperienced educators might seek to create “shelter-and-develop” opportunities that smooth the path into teaching. “Sheltering” ensures manageable workloads for rookies by, for instance, pairing a new elementary teacher with an experienced partner for side-by-side classroom instruction in some subjects, while assigning lesson planning and student data reviews to more senior members of the team. “Developing” rookie teachers, as in other professions, means that experts provide on-the-job support, such as having an experienced teacher regularly model how to teach a particular concept, observe a class and give feedback. These shifts would be reflected in new schedules and staffing models and open the door to paying teachers in a way that rewards expert leadership. 

Alternatively, in a system where the core teaching job has become unsustainable for educators at all stages of their careers, leaders might start by reorganizing teacher time and workload. A district might incorporate school staff and outside partners to pick up non-instructional jobs like bus and lunch duty, or to supervise periods for student enrichment (hands-on activities, field trips, projects). This would give all teachers more time to develop lessons that match each student’s learning progress. District leaders could help principals develop strategic team assignments and master schedules that free regular blocks of time for teachers to collaborate and share their work, with support from teacher-leaders who have deep expertise in the curricula being taught.

These are just two examples of starting points that provide a “do now” roadmap for reimagining the teaching job. Getting to a “build toward” vision requires codifying and sustaining the ways in which the district organizes people, time and money — for example, by creating new pay scales and career paths with a variety of leadership opportunities for the most effective teachers. And it means planning early for the next phase of change — for instance, training potential teacher-leaders who can step into new expert instructional roles the following year.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program provides money that can be used to explore and transition to new models that build on proven strategies. Districts can also use these funds to invest in ongoing data collection to highlight successes and implement change where it’s needed.

The pandemic has highlighted just how fragile many core systems and structures are. This is especially true in education, where, even before COVID, the teaching job was in crisis. As polarized as this nation is, Americans should be able to agree on two things: Many educators are doing truly heroic work, and school districts have a responsibility — and an opportunity — to redesign the job so teachers don’t have to be heroes to be successful.

David Rosenberg is a partner at Education Resource Strategies Inc., leading the Human Capital Practice Area. Karen Hawley Miles is president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies Inc.

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