Julia and I grabbed coffee together last weekend. We used to teach together at the same large urban middle school. Effervescent, enthusiastic and dedicated, I was immediately drawn into Julia's orbit. Her duct-taped 80’s-era boom box was the heartbeat of our school; playing funk mix tapes while she posted student work all over her classroom walls before and after school. Standing outside, rain or shine, she would shake hands with every student before they entered her classroom.
Julia and I met at coffee shops on weekends to grade papers elbow to elbow and watched our students' baseball games in the Spring. The union rep and their issues seemed crazy to us. We passed notes at staff meetings to get one another to laugh. We were there for our students and brushed off the other stuff without much care. We felt like we could change the world.
That was twenty years ago. We may have influenced the lives of many of our students over those years, but we certainly didn't change the world. And we certainly didn't change that school. It continues to graduate the same number and kinds of students as it did years ago.
Julia is still teaching there. Like the vast majority of schools in the U.S., very little has changed at this school save a physical upgrade and additional demands on her time. Students come from even more impoverished homes than before. Everyone moves complacently through six periods a day; teacher-directed learning and standardized tests. Some teachers excite and others disappoint; a mixed bag of experiences in a disjointed day.
What's really changed is Julia. She has her own family now, so she rushes out of the building after the last bell rings. Rather than gush about her amazing students, she complains about them. She's now the school's union rep and fumes about district incompetence. She seems tired, frustrated, bitter. What happened?
I ask her this and she pauses. "I got sucked in..." she begins. "I got sucked into a culture of complaint, victimization, mistrust...bit by bit. I grew tired of the unspoken lack of respect, the empty toilet paper rolls, the extra hours outside of school, the demanding parents."
"So, how do we change this pattern?" I ask sheepishly.
She pauses. "I'm almost done; I'm just hunkering down until I can retire." And then she smiles. "Pathetic, huh?" I smile back. Who am I to judge? I got out early.
"The entire profession needs to change," she finally admits.
Wanting to interrogate this further, I turn to my journal instead of Julia. "The entire profession" rings in my brain. What questions do you think we should pursue more aggressively to improve the teaching profession?
· Who should we target and encourage to go into the profession?
· What messages should we emphasize as they consider it?
· Should we raise the bar for teacher candidates, as they do in Finland?
· Do we need to check for specific human characteristics (as they do in the Foreign Service)?
· Should we make sure that they know how to have a loving relationship with another human being (as the authors of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” assert)?
· What should teacher training programs look like?
· Should they all resemble medical residencies?
· How can we offer significantly more time for planning and assessment (like in Japan)?
· Would teachers take on a few more students in exchange for more collaboration and non-teaching time?
· Would year-round schools help relieve fatigue?
· Who should evaluate teacher performance and with what sets of measures?
· How often should teachers receive growth-focused feedback?
What are your questions? What would you promote to improve the teaching profession?