Will Teaching Change or Will We Just Keep Complaining?

By Maddie Fennell.

A few months ago Ted Kolderie, founding partner of Education Evolving, sent me a packet of materials summarizing a discussion that took place more than a quarter of a century ago about the need to transform the education profession.

Page after page of 30-year-old comments read like my current Twitter feed and Facebook posts.  “Teachers and school administrators feel they are being blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine concerning public schools. …Teachers and school administrators read and are told that they are poorly prepared for whatever it is they are supposed to do and that as a group, they represent the lowest achieving group coming from colleges and universities.”

Now everyone is all atwitter that we have a teacher shortage. Actually, we don’t.  Plenty of people have teaching degrees. They just don’t want to teach. We've devolved the profession into something unpalatable; it’s like trying to serve a great steak on a dirty trash can lid!

While it’s tough to be an adult trying to work in this de-professionalized system, it’s even more difficult to be a student. At least the adults have a choice to leave the profession and try something new. Very few students – or their parents – have the resources to change to something better.

We need to change what it means to be an educator and how we educate our students. Our current system worked for the 19th Century factory model, but our expectations and needs have evolved and our structure isn't keeping pace.

I would describe our system as a spider web of interdependency, and I believe it will take transformation of almost every thread to rebuild it into a system that our kids not only deserve, but that our economy will need to continue to grow. There is no simple, cheap miracle fix that will bring about transformative change for the education profession and the American education system; the entire web needs to be re-woven.

How do we begin such a massive undertaking? I’d like to suggest four pillars that will lay a strong foundation:

1) Vision. We need a "man on the moon" kind of vision for the urgent change we need. We need leadership – from either an individual or an organization with political acumen, power and integrity – that can focus energy on building and creating anew. It is so easy to point a finger and blame, tearing down what others have attempted. It is much harder, but more rewarding, to take on the task of building something better. But we need a champion of change with some authority to coalesce the myriad stakeholders in the field and get all the arrows pointing in the same direction. There has to be a drumbeat for change loud enough that it can't be ignored.

2) Humility. Educational transformation must be more important to us than being in the limelight. One of my favorite quotes is "It's incredible how much you can get done when no one has to take the credit. " Teachers, students, administrators, parents, policy makers, philanthropists, politicians - all stakeholders must realize we are interdependent upon each other in this work. None of us can do it alone and continuing to try without everyone at the table is folly.

3) Transparency. To encourage growth, and to rapidly expand on successes, we are going to have to share what works and what doesn't work, openly and honestly. We will have to acknowledge that this isn't one size fits all work, but a myriad of solutions based on individual need. We need to be honest about the resources that are available, how they are used and who actually benefits from them.  We have to be willing to address the institutional racism still inherent in our system and openly acknowledge the effect that poverty has on student learning. Easy – no; necessary – absolutely.

4) Student focus. Every decision has to be made through the lens of first doing what is best for kids; not just your own kids, but ALL kids. To do this most effectively we need to include student voices at the table and in critiquing the work. Who better to work hand in hand in the transformation then the direct consumer?

I’ve recently been reading The End of Average by Todd Rose and so much of what he writes about directly frames the new system we need to develop. We need to move from "average" success to individual success. Rose states "… if we want equal opportunity for everyone, if we want a society where each one of us has the same chance to live up to our full potential, then we must create professional, educational, and social institutions that are responsive to individuality."

Thirty YEARS ago we realized the education profession had to change. What did we do?

We de-professionalized teaching. We put in more accountability for teachers while offering fewer resources. We expected greater results for each individual student while stripping teachers of the professional autonomy to make those decisions. We made it easier for anyone to teach (and of course provided the neediest kids with the least prepared teachers). We decided to judge teachers by their students’ test scores. The public narrative changed from blaming the system to blaming the individual. That was the recipe for improving the profession THEN…what will we do NOW?

A transformational shift is not going to take place unless we decide to change and are willing to accept the discomfort that we will endure as the changes take place.

If we don't, 30 years from now those letters will still hold the same truth and our problems – as a profession and as a society – will only have compounded.

Maddie Fennell is the 2007 Nebraska State Teacher of the Year. She is currently on assignment from the Omaha Public Schools to serve as a Teacher Leader in Residence at the U.S. Department of Education.

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