Saturday, June 14, 2014

How To Get Great Teachers

One of the relentless reformster refrains these days is that we must put a great teacher in front of every student. We must get the best and brightest into our classrooms, and we must keep them. We talk as if there are millions of awesometastic young teachers fighting to get into classrooms (which are currently occupied by hoary old wildebeasts of teaching), when in fact almost fifty percent of new teachers walk away from teaching within the first five years all on their own.

We are mystified by the puzzle of the hemorrhaging profession as if nobody knows how to recruit and retain the best people for a job.

What Business Knows about Recruit and Retrain

It's particularly amazing that so many business-based reformsters are mystified by this, since the business world knows exactly how this game is played. Let's roll back the clock to the post-crash world of 2009-2010, when discussion was rife about bankers and specifically why they were getting to keep their jobs and their bonuses after they destroyed their own businesses and the US economy with them.

They have experience. They have knowledge. We don't want to lose them. These were the basic arguments over and over again. If you want to hold onto the best people, you have to pay them well. And in the case of the banksters, there was no objective measured "proof" of their excellence-- they wrecked the economy and their businesses had to be bailed out by the taxpayers.

I have seen the same thing on a smaller scale. A regional business forced out a CEO who was, by many measures, lousy-- and then hired him as a $1,000/day consultant. Because, experience and knowledge.

Is Education Somehow Different?

We know how to recruit and retain really great people. We even know how to do it with not-very-great people. So why is it a mystery in education?

We've seen a huge assault on pay scales based on longevity-- why pay teachers more just for having been around for years? But the business world routinely awards "longevity bonuses" to "incentivize" employees to stick around (they also help insure that other businesses won't try to woo the employee away by offering more money, because that's how you attract employees).

The Not-Actually-Secrets of Making a Job Attractive and Rewarding

Yeah. You attract people by waving money at them.

But that's not the only way. We know a great deal about what drives people.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Give people the power and ability to chart a course for themselves. Let them be more than just button pushers and order-followers. Let them be self-directed.

Give people the chance to get better at stuff, to feel as if they've acquired greater skills, and that those skills are recognized and put to use.

Give people a sense that they are working for some larger, greater purpose. Hint: dealing with whatever crazy disaster management has ginned up today is not a higher purpose.

And, pro tip about the money-- it only works as incentive for mechanical non-cognitive tasks. If you want to get creativity and cognitive nimbleness, the right amount of money is "enough so that they aren't worried about money."

Sooo... Let's Do The Opposite?

The big irony is that teaching is perfectly situated to be a highly attractive line of work. Teachers can enjoy great autonomy in their classroom, along with the freedom to pursue whatever sort of excellence they are interested in as they develop strengths and specialties. And you don't have to look hard in education to find purpose-- helping young human beings find their best selves, to grow and change and become what they aspire to be, to learn and grown in understanding, to come to understanding of how to learn and take their places in the world. How more transcendent can a purpose get.

And yet.

And yet reformsters, with their stated purpose of bringing great teachers to students everywhere, aspire to strip teaching of everything that makes it attractive.

Let's reduce teacher autonomy by turning teachers into content delivery specialists, whose job is to present a program in a box, maybe even follow a script. And let's create school environments that are chaotic and out of control and lacking the resources teachers need to do their jobs. And let's turn the evaluation process into a random mess in which a teacher has no control over how her job performance is rated, or how that random mess might affect her career or pay. And let's strip away all due process so that any teacher can be fired at any time for any reason.

Let's not give teachers any avenue for improvement except in the area of doing what they're told.

Let's turn the purpose of teaching into "make students get better scores on standardized tests."

And in some states, let's actually lower the teacher's pay in real dollars every year. Or make a portion of the pay dependent on uncontrollable factors in competition with fellow teachers.

Reformsters counter these observations by simply insisting that they are doing the opposite of what they are clearly doing. We're destroying tenure in order to retain the best teachers. We are giving teachers stricter tighter direction in the classroom to free them up. We are cutting their pay so we can pay them more. But there's a practical problem with this-- teachers aren't stupid.

Could We Do the Right Thing?

Reformsters and teacher critics insist that the new rules for teacher employment are no worse than what some others suffer. But again, practically speaking, that just doesn't matter. Recruiters at ivy league schools don't make a pitch by saying, "This compensation package would be good enough for a community college guy, so we figure you should accept it."

You do not recruit people for any field by telling them repeatedly how little they deserve.

Recruiting and retain often involves balance. Some fields do offer very little in the way of job security-- so they compensate by throwing more money at recruits. Private schools offer less money and job security (and pay a price for both in teacher retention), but they make up for it in teacher autonomy (do not underestimate the power of giving a teacher an office-- space that is his to control and use as he wishes).

There are of course some reformsters whose dream is a school workforce of McTeachers-- low skill, easily replaced, and low paid. For those folks, nothing about what I've written above is either troubling or newsworthy.

But for reformsters who sincerely want to to attract and retain the best and the brightest, I suggest you ask yourself honestly why somebody would want to work under the conditions that you want to impose.

Yes, there is one more argument-- current teachers do not deserve nice things and should be punished and punished hard. But the conditions for punishing current workers are not the conditions for attracting the top talent (something the banksters understood perfectly).

If you really want to put a great teacher in front of every child, then you need to preserve and enhance a vision of teaching that gives teachers control over their fate, their teaching environment, and the education they provide their students. You need to preserve and enhance a vision of the profession that allows teachers to grow and excel (on their own terms). You need to preserve and enhance a vision of education's greater purposes, which are so much more than "college and career ready" and "do well on that bubble test." And you need to offer career pay that means they're not always wondering how they'll ever be able to raise a family or buy a home.

The Hidden Benefit

We don't want to give the same kind of money and benefit stuff to teachers who are not great. I get that and I don't disagree (though if you are one of the people who wants education run like a business, I'm not sure what your beef is-- business pays big bucks for not-greatness all the time, on purpose, rather than take a chance on losing greatness). Of course, some of what would help isn't actually a teacher benefit. Imagine if you took those urban schools that nobody wants to teach at and spent some money fixing them up, and provided them with great resources, and sent them the most capable administrators, and just generally made the well-financed, well-built, well-maintained, well-supplied centers of pride and learning. I feel like that might have benefits for people other than teachers.

If you are going to put a great teacher in every classroom, wouldn't it make sense to have a great classroom to put her in?

And there's another benefit to doing everything I've talked about, to making teaching just as attractive a profession as it can be. If you were to make teaching actually attractive, you would have a larger pool to choose from.
Right now, schools of education are tanking. The pool of future teachers is drying up, and as we already know, new teachers become former teachers at a steady rapid rate. Nobody is out there saying, "I just dream of reading a scripted lesson so that my students will do better on a bubble test." For all the reasons mentioned and more, teaching is becoming highly unattractive, and that means that job interview questions are shifting from, "What do you think is the best pedagogy for vocabulary acquisition" to "So, are you breathing?" For people who want actual teachers, TFA is no answer.

You want better choices? Attract more people to the field. Then you can hire just the good teachers and not hire all the bad ones, and your vision of every classroom with a great teacher will be achieved. See how easy? Really easy. So easy that I have to believe that pursuing these other approached might suggest that a great teacher in every classroom is not really some reformsters' goal at all.


  1. Right now I see very little evidence of any kind of teacher "shortage" or that colleges of ed are "tanking." There are still far more applicants for jobs than there are jobs. For example, here in southern Oregon, I applied for three special education positions despite being experienced and didn't even make the cut for an interview. Sped is allegedly a "high-needs" job. People are still majoring in education in big numbers, still believing that with all of the upcoming retirements of baby boomers, there will be more jobs. It's like they aren't paying attention to the wholesale onslaught against the profession.

    Of course that isn't true. Not only can many teachers even retire, but any openings in the future are going to be taken up by computers. That's what is scary. A whole generation or more of students will be denied real education, real personal interaction, just supervision by low-paid aides making little more than minimum wage and being part-time.

    1. I'm sure some regional factors come into play. I can tell you that enrollment in ed programs has dropped so much in my area that some ed departments are being phased out.

    2. Computer adaptive learning is a pipe dream that will never be realized on a large scale. There is a reason that the fundamental structure of public education has not undergone many significant changes in the last 100 years. It works on a scale that is unprecedented in any other endeavor. One hundred eighty days a year, 50 million five to 18 year olds get on buses and are cared for by three million teachers. For the most part we send them home safe and sound. And despite the efforts of reform to measure growth far too often, when all is said and done the majority come out ok and enter the world as competent adults. And by just about any eye or smell test, our public school products somehow manage to own and operate the most successful democracy and most powerful economy in the history of the world.

    3. I agree with Peter that there are likely regional differences at play. On top of that, though, much of it has to do with the economy. Before the economy tanked, we had many a long-term sub in our classrooms here in FL. Job openings would come up and they would have to re-advertise them several times before either finding someone or giving up and going with the long-term sub.

      After the economy tanked, you suddenly couldn't find a job opening. When one came up, a zillion people would apply for it. Since the economy has improved a little but is still largely stagnant, we're seeing more job openings and fewer applicants, though there are still more applicants than jobs at the moment.

      If the economy improves at all, I would bank on seeing teacher shortages again. People forget that it wasn't that long ago that Peter's "so, are you breathing" interview question wasn't that far off the mark.

  2. Teacher ed programs in my neck of the woods are desperate for candidates. The actual teacher shortage is not here just yet but it is right around the corner and it will be severe. In five years or so, a freshly minted teacher looking for their first job will be able to write their own ticket.

  3. Pubished less than 2 years ago, Maxine McClintock's tribute to Jacquez Barzun's lifetime of writing about teaching and learning, is a good sampler for readers of this post to learn more about how Barzun, who like Mr. Greene had no use for his era's reformsters, would recruit great teachers. Here's the URL to McClintock's piece:

    1. Jerry - The Barzun essay is awesome! Thanks for posting it.

  4. It's also possible that your lack of 'making the cut' was because they had already decided who to hire before posting the job- but legally still had to pretend. I've seen that quite a few times as a teacher. Even when that's not the case many administrators prefer to hire people they know rather than 'take a chance' with an outsider. Ironically, this is one area that needs to be reformed, but is completely ignored by 'reformers' - probably because it works in their favor.

    1. This is maybe more common than we think. Especially in small-town and rural schools. Quite often, somebody's nephew or daughter-in-law has the job wrapped up before it is even posted. A personal example: My wife has been out of teaching for several years while raising our young kids. She has been back in the market, but doesn't even bother applying for jobs in the district where we live and I teach, because we don't hire teachers. We hire coaches with teaching licenses.

  5. Enjoyed thoroughly! When we recognize teachers as human beings who are bright, creative and always looking to improve we are creating a place where learning can be nurtured. When we pay teachers enough so they can concentrate on the job of educating, both students and teachers thrive. I have recognized that good teaching requires a support system that is in line with the needs of the classroom and students. We need to understand that education is not a "business" but a creative endeavor that provides the tools for change and growth. Thank you for your insightful posts.