Josh Dormont (New York ’05) taught in the South Bronx.
If you really want to understand what matters to teachers, go to happy hour with some of them. Hell, buy someone a drink. No doubt you’ll hear some funny stories about the kids and colleagues, but most likely you’ll hear gripes about the lack of respect—from friends, principals, and other adults.
Often, people will interpret this as a debate about tenure. But that ignores a key issue: how we keep and reward the best isn’t about protecting teachers from worst-case scenarios, it’s about how we build a system that recognizes excellence, promotes growth, and embraces leadership.
The good news is we already have a useful model in the National Board Certification program. The bad news is that’s a little like saying more car engines should be like a Porsche Boxster. (Take a guess at how many teachers are board certified—and find out below.)
That said, here’s how it could work:
- First, we need to promote the professionalism and independence of teachers. Tenure once actually did this. It stood as a way of protecting the individuality of educators because we trusted them. If we treated tenure like National Board Certification, which most people don’t get on their first or even second tries, it would go a long way toward improving an outdated system. Tenure should be awarded based on peer- and board-review and other key inputs that set the bar of a tenured teacher as clearly distinct from untenured teachers. Some districts have tried to do this with “master teacher” programs, but they are too often weak and vague. The National Board looks at student work, classroom observations, unit plans, teacher feedback, and contributions to the school community—a richer palette that paints a better picture of all that great teachers do.
- Second, we should recognize that some teachers are better than others. I’m not advocating anything remotely along the lines of publishing test scores and teacher ratings—this is an abhorrent and misguided practice. Apparently, most principals are pretty good judges of their teachers’ performance and skills. The right to keep your job in perpetuity should not be a baseline achievement, but a truly extraordinary bar for only the top third of teachers. In turn, schools should be freed to compete for talent within a district, with those that need the most help moving to the top of the pool (think of the NFL draft). In this way, the best teachers would be incentivized to work in the schools and classrooms with the greatest needs (but still leaving teachers with final say).
- Finally, any assessment of teachers should embrace leadership. Give our best teachers more time to mentor, more time to lead curriculum development, and more time to plan professional development for their own schools. They’ll have the respect of their colleagues, get a sense of advancement and progress in a career that traditionally defines leadership as “leaving the classroom,” and most importantly, have the opportunity to scale their impact across more classrooms as true teacher-leaders in the school building.
I love teachers (especially my wife, a 7-year veteran of the Bronx (and now teaching English in Tanzania). I wish I had been a better teacher myself and had the guts to go back into the classroom like many of my friends. I know there’s a better way to support teachers, recognize the hard work they do, and drive everyone toward goals that lead to kids having a better education. Teachers and their allies should lead the shift in dialogue from one about preserving job security to one about how to bring out the best in the profession.
Josh Dormont resides in Tanzania with his wife. You can comment on this post at his personal blog, www.collaborationforgood.org.