For years after becoming a classroom teacher, I wondered if I was truly a professional. People said I was a professional, but I didn’t get paid all that much and, unlike my lawyer buddies, I never had time for a game of tennis at lunch.
My question was finally resolved a couple of years ago during a “professional development” workshop run by an unpleasant woman named Jane E Pollock. With the haughtiness of an impatient aunt, Pollock explained that teaching was no longer an art. It was now a measurable science. All that we teachers had to do to get good results was subject our students to her nine proven teaching techniques.
As I listened to Pollock, my blood pressure rising, I realized that I’d never felt like a real professional because I wasn’t one. And it had nothing to do with salaries or lunch duty. I wasn’t a professional because I lacked the one thing that distinguishes a profession from a job: autonomy.
Yes, I got to decide how to deliver curricula, and sometimes got to pick my own books. But even at the most progressive schools, 85 percent of my job was predetermined—laid out for me long before I set foot into the classroom.
It had already been decided, for example, how many children I’d teach. It had been decided where, when and how often I’d teach them. And I was lucky: in districts where data-heads like Pollock are winning the day, teachers are told how they must teach—down to the exact words they use to address their students.
Some of these decisions were made for legitimate logistical reasons, like giving kids time to eat lunch. But other decisions, like grouping kids by age or measuring learning by seat-minutes, were made by non-teaching politicians and curriculum experts—most of them dead for decades.
If my colleagues and I were true professionals, we would be given the time and autonomy to evaluate these decisions, determine their impact on student learning and adjust them accordingly. But we’re not professionals. And so like any other hired hands, we do the best we can with the job we’re given.
It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never taught how painful this is—how heartbreaking it is to know that you could reach a child in need, but don’t have the time, energy or permission to do so. This lack of autonomy is, I believe, a major reason why 40 percent of all new teachers end up quitting before their fifth year. I believe it’s also a major reason why 26,000 teachers in Chicago recently took to the streets.
But I don’t believe it’s inevitable.
This past year, through my research with the Academy for the Love of Learning, I’ve seen sustainable, scaled-up models of schooling in which teachers exercise real professional autonomy to decide how to best help their students learn. In the worldwide Reggio Emilia preschool model, teachers work in teams of two to document their students’ interests and then build a new curriculum every year. In the international Big Picture Learning Schools, teachers draw on their creativity and knowledge to help advisees develop and work through personalized learning plans. In Finland, teachers spend less time with students so that they can design their own curricula and assessments, following national guidelines as they see fit.
In the States, however, policy-makers are pushing toward the exact opposite direction. Rather than entrust teachers with more power, they want to restrict and retrain us or, in some cases, replace us with young recruits who know nothing better than to apply Pollock’s nine proven teaching techniques or whatever the latest pedagogical fad happens to be.
This clamp-down approach might create a handful of high-performing charters, but it will do little for the great majority of our nation’s schools. The path to more effective, dynamic public schools does not run over teachers but through us. The real task of school boards and principals is not to evaluate and impose upon teachers, but to support us, to give us the autonomy and time we need to do our jobs as we know best—as professionals—and then to follow our lead.
A graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what “school” could someday be. He blogs at schoolreformed.wordpress.com.