Before I started teaching ninth grade Algebra in D.C. Public Schools, I had a career in global health. I would sometimes travel alone for work for weeks at a time, collaborating with partners abroad and updating my boss back in D.C. every few days. The scope of these trips could be nebulous and my boss didn’t know exactly how I was spending my days, much less my hours and minutes. He trusted me to do my job, and as a result, I held myself accountable for doing it well.
So when I transitioned away from that career to teaching, I was caught off-guard by a completely different model of management and supervision. I went from experiencing autonomy to micromanagement. I was suddenly subject to unannounced classroom visits, expected to keep printed copies of detailed daily lesson plans in a binder on my desk (even when my actual planning was done digitally) and required to configure my whiteboard in a particular way. My experience is not unique: While D.C. has been a leader in implementing stringent supervision and high-stakes evaluation for teachers, these practices are part of a national education reform movement that seeks to standardize teaching in an (ultimately ineffective) quest to boost student test scores.
This lack of trust in teachers relates to our unique role: According to author Dana Goldstein, we are seen as doing an anti-intellectual, working class, feminized job, but we are also expected to fix so many of society’s problems, including poverty and inequality. Never has this level of societal expectation been more apparent than in the era of COVID-19, when our political leaders believe that our country might all but collapse without teachers physically present in classrooms with students five days a week.
We struggle when we can't envision a way to meet these lofty and wide-ranging expectations. We become demoralized when we don't have the tools we need to serve all our kids, when we are faced with too many simultaneous and competing demands and don't feel like we have anyone to turn to for help.
Therefore, despite all the reforms aimed at building a corps of skilled career educators, teachers are still quitting at alarming rates—a vast and expensive problem that disproportionately affects our most vulnerable students. Nearly half of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and some studies suggest a lack of support from administrators is a major factor. For many teachers, meeting impossible expectations while being micromanaged just feels too difficult—and not the particular type of difficult we thought we were signing up for when we chose a career working with kids.
Ultimately, it hurts students when teachers approach our work from a place of stress and fear. When we feel like students’ every movement is a reflection of our professional competency or personal failure, it is easy to focus more on enforcing student compliance than cultivating student joy.
Why teachers quit matters; but a more important question is: What would it take for schools and districts to get teachers to not only stay, but to thrive? If we want to empower teachers, we need to move away from a punitive, one-size-fits-all model of management and evaluation and toward a model of collaboration and personalized support.
Across all fields, 94 percent of employees cite opportunities for learning and development as a key factor in their decision to stay at a job. Teachers are no different than any other professionals; growth matters to us, too. Two factors that strongly contribute to retention of new teachers are having a mentor in their subject area and having time for common planning or collaboration with their peers. Given the evidence, education leaders should replace high-stakes evaluation systems aimed at measuring teacher effectiveness in order to weed out so-called “bad” teachers and reward “good” ones—initiatives that have been costly and largely ineffective—with a professional learning model that prioritizes supporting and strengthening teachers.
One approach that schools can use to support teachers at all levels is providing collaborative, subject-specific coaching. In many instructional coaching models, the line between mentorship and evaluation is blurred, with coaches serving as pseudo-administrators. It is not particularly effective for coaches to spend their time documenting whether a teacher has updated the day’s objective on the board or how many students in the classroom have hoods on. Instead, instructional coaches should be content experts, trained in adult learning principles, who serve primarily as thought-partners to teachers.
Coaches should also be willing to step in to work alongside teachers, whether that means running a last-minute print job, pulling a student for a one-on-one intervention or leading the class for a few minutes to model an instructional technique. Ideally, students will come to know instructional coaches as part of a team of adults supporting them. As author Brené Brown has said, referencing Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “The Man in the Arena” speech: “If you are not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
Schools should provide responsive training to teachers, as well. Most districts now build professional development (PD) into the school calendar, but these sessions vary in form and effectiveness. It doesn’t help teachers to grow when PD is treated as a staff meeting or is unrelated to the actual problems teachers encounter on a daily basis. Rather, the most helpful PD involves strengthening teaching pedagogy—with a focus on content and instruction—through ongoing practice, feedback, reflection and collaboration.
There is no single model of PD that works for all, or even most, teachers; therefore, training should be responsive, with coaches working with teachers to identify their individual pedagogical needs. Experienced teachers who are already skilled at classroom management shouldn’t have to attend another session on how to monitor student behavior and “be seen looking.” Instead, they could spend their time collaborating with their peers in a professional learning community of their choice.
The best example of responsive training I’ve experienced is through the Modern Classrooms Fellowship. In this week-long summer course, I received adaptable resources and individual coaching that will allow me to implement a new instructional model focused on blended learning, self-pacing and mastery-based grading.
This training was so helpful because it provided concrete solutions to seemingly intractable challenges I’ve faced in my classroom. It showed me a model of how, in practice, teachers can implement individualized learning opportunities for 25 different students and enable them to move at their own pace without falling behind. Instead of participating in theoretical discussions on how and why to differentiate instruction, I received tools and exemplar lesson plans to use, brainstormed with a coach who had extensive experience implementing the model at the high school level and exchanged ideas with a cohort of fellows. My growth wasn’t gauged by a rubric on a clipboard. Instead, my coach provided qualitative feedback and gave me time to revise my strategies based on her tips.
Given my experience in the fellowship, it’s no surprise to me that Modern Classrooms has many positive effects for students: it seems like the program helps kids specifically because it helps teachers.
Many schools and districts already run effective mentorship and collaboration programs for new teachers; but teachers don’t stop needing support after year one, or even year ten. All teachers would benefit from a management model that promotes growth at every level of the profession.
I sometimes wonder how liberating it would be to go to work as a teacher feeling fully supported, without any fear that I’ll be observed at the wrong moment. But then I catch myself: I do know what that feels like. I think back to that old job in global health, and what happened when I gave a public presentation in front of my boss.
He didn’t sit there with a clipboard, scoring me on a convoluted evaluation rubric as I spoke. He didn’t open his computer to type a running report of the words I said or the way I moved my body. He didn’t scan the room searching for people slouching in their chairs or on their phones, taking their actions as evidence of disengagement that he could later use as justification for denying me a promotion. He didn’t walk up to me in the middle of my presentation to provide “in-the-moment feedback” by handing me a sticky note or whispering into my ear. He just listened and nodded.
It didn't seem novel at the time, but I realize now that in the teaching profession, that level of trust and support would be both refreshing and transformative. Effective programs that value and empower teachers exist, at least on a small scale: first-year mentoring programs, collaborative coaching, or training fellowships. If we want to build great teachers, and keep them in the classroom, we need more of these types of supports and fewer boxes to check.