What If …

What if educational institutions stopped the development of curriculum and assessment programs?  What if they just said, hey, let’s stop working on programs for a bit and try something new?  What if people in educational leadership positions said,

Hey, let’s try this for two years.  Let’s put our focus and energy on helping to develop teachers.  Let’s help them develop into their vision of why they got into education in the first place.”

Before continuing I want to acknowledge three things.  First, I am not singling out issues in my school. I am proud of where I work and what we produce.  Second, this is not an observation that looks down on something but instead looks up to a potential outcome.  This is about aspirations, not condemnations.  Third, this is not an attack on any administrator or teacher. We are all humans are doing the best with what we have and become better tomorrow by learning from the mistakes made today.

With those acknowledgments made, I would like to get some things out in the open.

  1. Lasting positive change in education will occur when effective teacher-recruitment, development, and retention programs are developed.  Jennifer King Rice, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote a book called Teacher Quality.  In her book, she claims that, “Teacher quality is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement.

  2. Programs to formalize curriculum and testing protocols, grading devices, and standardizing best classroom practices are ineffective because they does not address the largest issues in education today.  Such programs might be creating those issues.  Certainly, these programs contribute to a feeling, by teachers, of being micromanaged. 

  3. It takes a significant amount of time to develop into a quality teacher.  This is entirely subjective, but the estimation of five years seems to be a reasonable amount of time required for a teacher to develop. 

  4. Almost half of new teachers fail to make it to the five-year mark, and over half of the teachers currently working in the US have less than 10 years of experience.  This contributes to a severe teacher shortage.  These first few items combine to create a negative feedback loop.

  5. There is an unfulfilled need in education to develop and support teachers so they can better execute their roles.  The professional development programs fail to provide meaningful coaching to help teachers improve their practices.  The programs designed to help teachers improve often have the opposite effect of their goal. 

In short, the most powerful contributor (outside of personal life), to quality outcomes in education is the teacher.  The biggest problem in education is the lack of quality teachers.  Teachers of all levels of experience are leaving, citing stress as the number one reason.  They’re leaving at increasing rate only made worse by COVID-19.  Efforts to attract, develop, and retain new teachers have failed because they fail to address the teacher.  Such programs and efforts exacerbate the problem.

To turn this trend around and improve educational we need a new direction. The response to issues in education should focus on recruiting quality potential teachers and then investing resources to help them develop and flourish in the classroom.  But, this is expensive and would require much time, both in developing teachers and in developing quality mentors.  The solution to either of these needs might be difficult to locate within educational institutions.

Here’s an idea to get the ball rolling towards solutions.  Schools should invest great focus, drastically exceeding the focus on the development of other teacher programs, on the development, implementation, and execution of a teacher mentor program.  Mentors need to be carefully vetted and then rigorously and continuously trained.  The selection process for incoming teachers must be stringent.  However, the school should also have a lucrative incentive to attract the interest of as many teachers as possible. 

All of those pieces in place will still fail to break this feedback loop if a significant shift in ideology fails to take hold.  To develop a teacher, the mentor must work with the teacher, their needs, and their vision of how they can develop into the best teacher they can be.  There is no manual for quality teaching, including the favorite go-to book, The First Days of School

A comprehensive training program will not ever exist for teaching.  To write a training manual, the author must know exactly what is going to be needed by the trainee, when they’re going to need it, and how they are going to best use it.  Teaching is an altruistic endeavor largely dependent on interpersonal relationships.  Human interactions are highly complex and largely misunderstood.  The understanding required to write a training manual does not exist.  Therefore, a training manual or program will fail.  What is needed is a new approach to mentoring teachers.

In an article written in The Journal of Applied Behavior Science, called, Coaching with Compassion, the authors articulate how to develop people within an organization through quality mentorship.  The authors note that many failing mentoring programs focus on what they call coaching for compliance.  This type of program focuses on the needs and requirements of the organization.  They often lack the desired efficacy because, among other reasons, they fail to institute interpersonal relationships between the mentor and mentee. 

The authors promote the idea that developing a resonant relationship that is then used to address the needs of the mentee is required for a mentoring program to be effective.  In short, the quality development of teachers will begin and end with the individual needs of the teacher.  As the teachers develop in response to the conflicts and barriers unique to them in the workplace, the needs of the institution are fulfilled. 

In sum, the greatest positive impacts to education will come in response to teacher development and retention.  Teachers make a greater impact in student achievement than other institutional element.  It takes a lot of time and hard work to develop a quality teacher.  The average length of experience among teachers is quickly declining due to a combination of large portions of veteran teachers leaving the profession and a failure of institutions to retain replacement teachers.  So, let’s entice the right people to become teachers and then help them to become the best teachers they can be.  Let’s develop teacher-centered, meaningful programs for our current teachers.  Let’s focus on the development of quality teachers. 

If every other program in education was left exactly as it is, containing all of the flaws and problems that currently exist, but the quality of the average teacher was improved, students would greatly benefit.  I believe that the benefit to students from such an approach would vastly outshine the benefits secure from fixing all of the problems that exist in textbooks, curriculum, and testing tools. 

Let’s build a solid foundation before we worry about the color of the drapes.