What Do Teachers Want?

If we truly want to improve our nation’s schools, we should be focused on making the teaching profession one that attracts – and then keeps – the most intellectually alive, talented and ambitious young people. Instead our current education policy makes the profession less and less attractive all the time as a career choice.

Soon only the blindly idealistic or those with minimal talent will opt to make teaching a profession. Those drawn to education as a vocation will sidestep experience in the classroom and head straight for roles in administration. Why go into the classroom if the focus is all on testing results, if quality learning experiences are sacrificed on the altar of school grades, and if the mood is one of blaming our social ills on the teachers?

As  those who are potentially our finest teachers choose other careers, wealthy parents will see the writing on the wall and increasingly abandon public schools for private schools. The result will be an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. In other words, as a result of our obsession with standardizing both testing and what is taught, as well as the current habit of browbeating teachers – all in the name of equalizing schools -  what we are going to get is the direct opposite – increased stratification between the haves and have-nots. This is not education serving democracy, but education serving the preservation of privilege.

If we really want to improve education for all, we will do everything possible to attract the most capable young people to the profession.  With the right people doing the job, the labyrinthian evaluation system currently being developed at great expense by the states, would be unnecessary. One reason we think we need such a system now is that in the past decades, since the women’s movement opened the doors of other professions to women, the quality of teachers has declined.

Highly-trained, ambitious teachers need an intellectually vibrant community to help them thrive. The experience of working in such a community, one dedicated to doing the best for students, goes a very long way toward guaranteeing strong teacher performance. Draconian teacher evaluation systems will not yield such excellence.

What can we do to get outstanding young people to enter the teaching profession? Clearly it would help if we were to raise teacher pay to at least approximate that available in the other professions.  What teachers also want is a respectful, helpful environment in which to work. This means having a seat at the decision-making table, having time to think and collaborate with colleagues, and having administrators who work hard to meet the needs of teachers. Most teachers do not support one size fits all standardized testing, but prefer assessments tied to their classroom program. They do not support grading schools. They want to channel their energy into developing engaging curriculum for students. They want to be involved in an educational community devoted to researching the very best ways to meet the learning needs of children.

Let’s take the money we are spending on testing and evaluating teachers and use it to really improve the schools. Let’s do what Finland, and South Korea, and all the top educational systems in the world do – let’s develop policies whose aim is enticing the very best candidates to enter the teaching profession. Then we will really see our nation’s schools improve.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.