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An abundance of recent books, research and headlines present growing evidence that our nation’s schools can and must do a better job of preparing teachers for the experiences they’ll face in the classroom. They show that if educators really knew how to address the challenges of teaching in high poverty areas, they would increase their impact and make a longer career out of teaching.

Certainly, better preparation is a crucial element to solving our teacher quality and retention issues, but it’s only half the challenge. The other is keeping those who become truly great teachers engaged and effective as they settle in to their careers.

For too long, teachers have had one of two career paths—stay in the classroom earning seniority and incremental pay increases or enter an administrative track and become a principal. This sort of flat profession wouldn’t work in most other sectors, and with half of teachers leaving their jobs within the first five years, it’s not working in education either.

RELATED: A race to close the achievement gap without burning through teachers

Prevent teacher burnout
Jonas Chartock

The good news is the question of “what’s next” for mid-career teachers is one that school districts are increasingly trying to answer. They are implementing career ladders and other strategies aimed at recognizing and retaining classroom talent.

Unfortunately, these approaches are often undertaken without regard for the impact schools want these teachers to have or how this effort can reinforce and strengthen other reforms. As a result, these initiatives have yet to bear much fruit. A 2012 study by the organization TNTP found nearly two-thirds of our best teachers continue to leave for better jobs somewhere else.

RELATED: Wrestling Newark’s achievement gap: Why finding the extra hours is only half the battle

For teacher leadership to be truly meaningful, it needs to be viewed as more than just a reward and recognition strategy. Instead, it should be designed to advance the most important district and school priorities. In a paper released recently, Leading from the Front of the Classroom: A Roadmap for Teacher Leadership that Works, our two organizations provide some practical guidance for designing these types of opportunities in part by highlighting successful examples.

The paper showcases leadership programs in Tennessee, Denver and at the Noble Street charter network in Chicago. Each of these systems is integrating teacher leadership with other top priorities such as Common Core, teacher evaluation implementation, and building strong cultures among students and staff.

RELATED: Are there really no shortcuts for getting low-income kids to college?

“In public school systems constantly strapped for resources, great teachers remain an undervalued and underutilized asset.”

In Tennessee for instance, leaders recognized that to succeed with Common Core, classroom instruction would need to change significantly in terms of rigor. They decided that teacher leaders were most likely to deliver training that other teachers would actually apply in their classrooms. By 2013, 700 teacher leaders had trained more than 30,000 of their peers. Three consecutive years of student achievement gains provide some evidence this strategy is succeeding.

In Denver, the district is leveraging effective teachers to address one of its most significant challenges–overtaxed principals. As Superintendent Tom Boasberg has pointed out, “In any other knowledge-based profession, it’s an absolute given that you won’t see people trying to coach or supervise more than six or eight people. Yet in schools, we ask school leaders to coach and supervise thirty, forty, fifty people.”

RELATED: Vergara v. California highlights the need for a teacher-powered educational strategy

Prevent teacher burnout
Ross Wiener

To address this, Denver schools have appointed lead teachers to supervise, support and develop other teachers on their teams, as well as improve their teams’ results. This structure assists in making the scope of principals’ responsibilities more manageable while helping them fully implement the state’s new requirement for more intensive teacher evaluations. Denver has been recognized for its efforts to put skilled teachers out front in supporting and developing their colleagues, thereby serving as a model for other districts.

In public school systems constantly strapped for resources, great teachers remain an undervalued and underutilized asset. We have yet to truly tap into their talent to accelerate learning and this could be one of the reasons we have yet to fully realize the promise of our school improvement efforts.

Providing educators opportunities to simultaneously lead their peers and address school wide problems has enormous potential to change that, and make teaching a more dynamic, attractive career.

Ross Wiener is Vice President of the Aspen Institute and heads the organization’s Education and Society program.

Dr. Jonas Chartock is CEO of Leading Educators, a national non profit that partners with school districts to accelerate the impact of teachers in leadership positions.

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Letters to the Editor

13 Letters

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  1. allow teachers to administer discipline. you show me a student that doesn’t want to learn but shows up in a classroom where there are no consequences then the ability for a teacher to teach as well as students learning will be hampered

  2. As a mid career teacher myself, I do not have any desire to do anything other than what I was hired to do: teach. You mention that “this sort of flat profession would nott work in most other sectors”. Really? It seems to me that most doctors choose to stay as doctors and not become hospital administrators. There are plenty of police officers who choose to walk the beat for the duration of their careers. Plenty of firefighters never choose to become supervisors. As a matter of fact, out of the hundreds of teachers that I have worked with, I only know of one who wanted to become a principal. If you want to retain experienced teachers, do not provide us with a “career ladder”. Instead, provide us with the support we need to work with our students. And while you are at it, please stop citing anti teacher organizations like TNTP. They do not represent rank and file teachers. TNTP is nothing more than a front group for hedge fund companies that seek to privitize education.

  3. I am retired now–35 years in the classroom–but remember well how it feels to see the flat career path. My “raises” were varied, powered by advancing grad credit and years on the schedule, plus negotiated increases, but late in my career (25 years in) I was making good money and decided that I would give myself a promotion! Sounds silly, but it made a big difference in how I viewed my own job and responsibilities: I never told anyone, not even my wife–OK, especially not my wife–or close colleagues, but as my responsibilities increased including mentoring, committee work, student discipline, department stuff? I just decided that I had become the lead teacher for my grade level. It didn’t change anything–yet changed everything. I just gave myself permission to act like I was in charge of stuff that I actually just had limited influence over. Probably sounds goofy, but it made a big difference in how I felt about going to work–it was the opposite of what was happening in other professions where someone gets a “promotion” with a new title and tasks, but no bigger pay increase than COLA. I had the $$ but just wanted to feel that I had “advanced” so I just decided that I had.
    What did I actually do differently? Mostly just spend additional time and effort at helping other teachers at my grade level (grade 6 in a 1500 student suburban middle school). I also went to bat for people when they needed assistance, if they wanted it-but I always offered. Just like any job, sometimes this made a difference, sometimes not– made me feel I was making a bigger contribution. I was also involved in state-level leadership committees (that people in my own school ignored of course).

  4. “For teacher leadership to be truly meaningful, it needs to be viewed as more than just a reward and recognition strategy. Instead, it should be designed to advance the most important district and school priorities.”

    This is perhaps the most ill-conceived and ignorant idea I have yet heard about saving education. While reformers tear the system apart, doing nothing to actually help students, your answer is allow teachers to have genuine control of the situation, provided that they agree with what is going on around them.

    Get this straight:
    The teachers are not leaving in droves (and young people staying away in droves) not because they don’t have a say in what happens. this has been going on for decades. They are leaving because these changes are doing nothing to help kids (quit the opposite, they are turning kids off to learning in record numbers).

    So-called “reformers” and their corporate allies cannot see how their plans are ruining kids. They cannot see a solitary weakness in their plans … until now. Yes, not having enough teachers actually in the classroom makes it very difficult to actually do things.

    this is like saying “Maybe if we had allowed Native Americans more of say in how the white people took over their lands, they would have felt better about themselves and helped out.” Ridiculous.

    The start of true reform is to realize that there are certain things teachers should rightfully be held accountable for, and certain things they should never be held accountable for. Those things should be clearly defined. There are things administrators should be held accountable for, and certain things they should not be held accountable for. Finally there are things students should be held accountable for, and things they should not be accountable for. Some of those points on student accountability are on a student-by-student basis. Once these are defined, you observe, and make sure that there is proper accountability. Then launch a fair evaluation system based on that.

    Then and only then will any genuine reform in American education begin.

  5. The problem remains the teacher union. All unions believe that seniority is the 1st commandment. Older teachers are better teachers. Because they have paid union dues longer. But this is not reality, only a union stance. Are schools are filled with 50 year old teachers who long ago ceased to give a dam about student achievement. They have their retirement date circled on their home calendar, and nothing else matters. This is the lazy, self serving attitude that unions create. We cannot allow our kids to suffer through these bad teachers. Tenure must come to an end.

  6. Seems like two guys with NO experience in the field know all the answers. Perhaps they could help me with my leaking power steering fluid, since they don’t need any experience to have expertise….they’re probably great at mechanics too.

  7. Well said, Richard. Many of us do not agree with Common Core at all. Getting some sell-outs to force it down our throats is not the answer. How about: Ask the teachers what they think? No, I guess the billionaires like Gates and Walton and the testing companies like Pearson wouldn’t like that.

  8. It is easy to write prescriptions for the ailing schools. However, much like in medicine, if you are NOT a doctor, it is illegal to do that. The pharmacy will NOT fill such prescriptions.

    But in education, if you are a billionaire, a politician, or anybody for that matter can do it! Except of course, the ones who have the training, the experience, and the ones who should be treating the ailment!

    Why? Find the answers to that question and you might find the antidote to teacher attrition.

  9. What becomes very clear here is that the most overvalued sector in the American workplace is management. It gets all of the big salaries leaving scraps on the table for the people who actually execute.

    Fool, you don’t want your best teacher becoming a supervisor. Would you do this on a baseball team, converting your best pitcher or home-run hitter to being a manager? The sports people get it right. You pay for the talent you deploy at the front lines. If sports teams can find a way to reward their top performers, why can’t schools?

    It seems that more than a little intellectual laziness is involved here. Companies have flattened their hierarchies. Why haven’t schools?

  10. I want to correct Darryl’s comments about tenure. K -12 tenure is often confused with college professor tenure. K-12 tenure only provides a fair process to avoid situations like a parent who is angry about a child’s grade to get him or her fired. It does not guarantee a job by any means.

  11. It may be a flat profession but our personal lives are anything but flat. Career ladders become more demanding just when iur families are also more demanding. At 20 I poured my heart and soul into everyday like a peace corp worker or a missionary. By 35 all my friends had babies to care for or graduate programs at night, the school was asking more and more from us as we had been in the staff the longest (10 years in the inner city ). I saw myself at a crossroads. My family, including my aging parents was going to ask more and more, my friends similiarly could support me less. I realized a hiatus from teaching from age 40 to 50 was the wise path. Return to teaching for 5-10 years finishing at age 62. If the path back in had been easier I would recommend it to others. flexibility in work structure is sometimes called sequencing. Many woman job share, but if you need the full salary that is not realistic.
    Two key factors are the pension in my state is designed around my teaching at age 60-62 and access to health benefits. The National Health care has created more strategies for burned out teachers exiting early.

  12. There are two groups of teachers. One group is there for the students, and the other is there for the paycheck. It does not depend upon the experience level; it depends upon the heart and the desire to see the students move forward. I have taught for 40 years and find teachers are not asked about the changes. Rather they are judged by inexperienced people whose only experience is they went to school. They never lived the other side. Tenure is the cause of many low-grade teachers to be raised to be administrators. Teachers need the time to collaborate and build a great program. When I was Department head, half of the teachers would not collaborate, they chose to teach. The difference is finding those teachers who are ready to collaborate with an open mind and have enough experience to incorporate fresh ideas, technologies, and keeping up with the ever-changing lives of our students. We need more teachers who are willing to study, evaluate, and improve on what was, while removing that which is not working.

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