By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

The Teaching Profession In This New Year


The beginning of a new year is a time for reflection, a time to face our fears about the uncertainty of the future, and a time to articulate our dreams and wishes for the upcoming year. Reflection is a practice the teaching profession takes seriously. Of the six North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards, the fifth states that “Teacher Reflect on Their Practice.”

One important national survey, the 2013 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, recently asked teachers to reflect on their job satisfaction and the survey results are worth paying attention to. The number of teachers who say they are very satisfied with teaching has dropped by 23 percent in just five years—from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2013. In another recent study from the New Teacher Project (TNTP), data shows that half of all teachers in the top 20 percent of effectiveness leave within five years of teaching.

The teachers in these surveys are not just numbers; they are the professionals working in our own schools in North Carolina. In the past year while working almost daily with K-12 public school teachers to help prepare our future teachers, I have had time to listen to some of our neighborhood teachers reflect upon their concerns for the teaching profession as well as their hopes and dreams.

One day while in a regional high school, a veteran teacher of 15 years told me of his concern about the increasing feeling of isolation and competition in his building. He said he valued and wished for a workplace where collaboration is the norm. Collaboration, the ability to work with colleagues to problem solve, rather than competing with other teachers and schools for external rewards is his vision of a healthy and productive workplace.

On another day, a student teacher told me her mentor teacher was leaving the profession because she felt that she could not teach with the flexibility she needed to meet the holistic needs of all of her students. She feared the increase of more top-down bureaucratic accountability practices with prescribed procedures that have no consideration of context in learning differences. She wanted the freedom to express herself and influence her students’ lives through excellent, creative, and engaging teaching, not merely teach to a standardized test with prescribed test-prep materials. The student teacher kept reminding me as we talked that her mentor teacher was the hardest working teacher she has ever observed, a teacher who continually demanded high standards for herself and her students.

The biggest worry my future teachers express before they graduate and enter the profession is that their future teaching jobs will not provide them the time and professional development resources they need to continue being learners and prepared professionals in this dynamic and ever-changing world they and their students inhabit. They envision and wish for a working environment where teachers have time during the normal school day to work in teams and learning communities.

In Finland, the country often discussed as having the best educated students and the most talented teachers, the National Employee Satisfaction Survey in 2012 shows that many Finnish teachers would consider leaving teaching if the government were to limit their professional freedom and autonomy by introducing, for example, external school inspections or standardized testing to control more of teachers’ work.

Daniel Pinks’ book “Drive” (2009) articulates how recent research is helping us to better understand what motivates human beings, and his writing validates the concerns found in these national surveys and articulated by these individual teachers and future teachers. A system of carrots and sticks similar to the current accountability procedures of national and state education systems, is not compatible with, and is even antagonistic to what motivates creative human beings. Pink’s research helps substantiate what our teachers want and need to meet the educational challenges we face: Teachers need autonomy, self-determination, and connection to a community of individuals working and learning in collaboration.

Perhaps it is time for our national and state policy makers to listen to the reflections of our teachers and to leave behind the old paradigm of command and control that dominated the 20th century and is evident in our Educational accountability practices of today.

In 1996, educational scholar Darling-Hammond warned us that “the problem of the next century will be ‘the advancement of teaching,’ and its resolution will depend on our ability to develop knowledge for a very different kind of teaching than what has been the norm of most of this century. If we want all students to actually learn in the way that new standards suggest and today’s complex society demands, we will need to develop teaching that goes far beyond dispensing information, giving a test and giving a grade.”

We can begin this advancement by listening to our teachers’ reflections, treating our teachers like the creative, autonomous professionals they want to be, and empowering them to be leaders, not relegating them to be merely scripted technicians.

(Dr. Burrows has been a teacher for over 25 years and is currently director of Teacher Education at Brevard College.)


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