Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Teacher Career Ladders

Teaching-- a field where you can start at the middle and work your way up to the middle.

Many commenters on many sides of various tracks periodically note that one of the problems with the teaching profession is that there is no career path. You start out teaching a bunch of kids in your classroom, and thirty-some years later, there you are, still teaching a bunch of kids in your classroom. You are probably better at it for any number of reasons, but you're doing the same job, with the same responsibilities for the same classroom teacher pay.

Lots of folks (again, from all sides of all tracks) note that this is certainly not one of the more attractive features of a teaching career, and that we could probably hang onto teachers more easily (those of us who actually want to, anyway) if we could offer some sort of career advancement. Unfortunately, here are the teacher ladders that have presented themselves to date.

The Escape Ladder

The problem with a career ladder is that it adds non-teaching tasks to a teacher's day. There are some traditional career ladders open to teachers that involve moving up to administrative or supervisory jobs. If I had to guess, I would bet the two most common reasons that teachers do not climb that ladders are 1) being an administrator looks like a miserable job and 2) they don't want to leave teh classroom.

Administrative jobs have been so hamstrung and depowered that they have lost the luster that usually makes advancement appealing. The usual desire to climb a career ladder goes something like this: "At my level I can see problems to solve that would make The Work go better, and if I climb up a rung or two, I'll be able to effect those changes and make the place work better." But in schools it looks like you have to climb a ladder to the clouds before you can actually get your hands on the power needed to straighten out much of our mess.

Even lesser jobs, like taking on dean of students or athletic director, mean less classroom time. Career ladders lead not to another, higher step in a teaching career, but to another career entirely, a career where you no longer get to do the work you went into the biz to do in the first place. Teaching, even after a few decades, requires a huge hunk of your regular day, and all of your school day-- nobody is sitting in the lounge thinking, "Boy, I just have so much time left over after handling classes-- I need another project to fill up all this empty time."

The Vapor Ladder

Nevertheless, many teachers take on extra projects and responsibilities anyway. Committee chair. Heading up the implementation of New School Program #1452. Taking responsibility for applying the lessons from that cool in-service.

All of these in-house teacher-leader career steps have one thing in common-- the teacher holds the job at the pleasure of the administration.

Teachers all across the country can tell similar stories. Teacher brings back great idea to school with desire to implement, and administration says, "Sure, but you can't have any money, you can't use our facilities, and you'll have to meet with people on your own time. Whip up an implementation plan and we'll tell you whether we'll let you do it or not (Spoiler alert: not)." Teacher gets job of heading up a program and is free to lead as long as she does exactly what her administrator tells her to do. Teacher heads up and leads a program implementation, only to come to school one day and discover that somebody else is now leading meets that she is not even notified about; nobody even bothered to tell her she wasn't in charge of Project X any more.

In other words, teachers are given tasks, but not ownership. They're allowed to ride in the front seat of the bus, but they can't drive. A real step on a career ladder gives you ownership and the power to chart a course, to make your mark by using your judgment to make things better.

The Invisible Ladder

Every organization has it. There's the organizational chart that's written on paper, and then there's the real organizational chart, the one that describes how the company really works.

Schools are no different. In your building, there are teachers who have unofficial roles. "Call Ms. Clearheart if you need help with that software." "Stop by Mr. McWhittlebutt's room if you need some extra paper supplies." "See Mrs. Johnsonville-- she has the key to that closet." "Check with Mr. Gallonoches about that-- he's always in charge of that event."

There's a certain amount of regard and responsibility that comes with these unofficial jobs, and they can be really important, a part of your institutional tradition.

But they don't come with any of the trappings of a real career ladder. They usually don't pay more, and since they're unofficial they are more vapor jobs, jobs that can be taken away by administration for any reason at any time.

The Ladder of Imaginary Excellence

Reformsters often propose a career ladder based on excellence-- teachers who demonstrate their awesomeness can move up a step, get more pay, bigger desk, maybe a tiara. Perhaps we could give them a big raise and have them teach 300 students, or just oversee a bunch of teacher apprentices.

I understand that many reformsters feel compelled to fix what they view as major design flaw in the teaching profession-- people who get a raise every year (well, unless they're in North Carolina) whether they did anything swell to earn such an advancement. Even as I'm compelled to note that the private sector is filled with examples of people who get huge bonuses even when they've, say, crashed the entire economy, I get their point. I think there are compelling reasons to do it the way we do, but that doesn't really matter because (I'll type this for the gazillionth time) we do not have any system at all at all at all that can tell us which teachers would deserve advancement in a merit-based system.

And even if we could, there's another issue-- financing such a system. No school board is going to go to the public and say, "We have so many excellent teachers that we need a five mill tax hike to pay them properly."

Plus, the idea of a system in which teachers climb a career ladder by taking on more supervisory jobs gets us back to a career ladder that leads away from the classroom.

Can It Be Done?

Okay, I started to lay out my ideas here and it tripled the length of this post, so I think I'd better mull it over and save all of that for another, better-focused day. Suffice it to say that my idea would require some major structural and cultural changes. Also, getting rid of administrative jobs. At the same time, we could probably do a little with simple things, like office space and autonomy.

So it's not easy, and it's especially not easy if what you're really trying to do is come up with a system that would let you scrap tenure and reduce the total cost of staffing. But I can agree with those from all sides of all tracks that the current version of a teacher career ladder looks suspiciously like a step-stool, and is probably not optimal.


  1. The best administrators began as the best teachers. And the worst administrators sought out and got their jobs in order to "get out of the classroom." There is honor and merit in staying in the classroom. I'm very proud to be there. The reformies who argue we need a career ladder are often as not the ones who've found their way out, like the E4E folks. They make a great living trying to sell the rest of us the marvel and wonder of more work for less pay.

  2. I would like access to clerical help. And a tiara. Seriously, how does the career ladder work in most professions? Really?

  3. My mom was a teacher and I always thought she would make a good principal. She said, "No, then I wouldn't be able to teach" and that was what she was happy doing.

    Years and years ago now, probably 25 years, my local union developed a Career Ladder program. The idea was that you did stuff like write an essay, turn in a super lesson plan on a unit, and have observations by teachers who had been determined by some unknown method to already be super teachers, and the ones that got the highest scores got on this career ladder. Then they would do some kind of project that would illuminate something or someone, and they could be asked to teach in the most difficult schools, where super teachers were really needed. For being on the career ladder, the teachers got an extra $3000 a year. It was called a "ladder," but there was only one step to it.

    The program was touted as a success and my union leaders were asked to give presentations and be consultants to districts all over the country. Then economic times got worse and they stopped the program.

    At the time we had an International Studies Center where many foreign languages were taught to both our students and the community. A colleague of mine worked in the language lab. A teacher asked her to do a whole lot of research for her, which was not my friend's job, but she thought was for a class the lady was teaching, and she did it for her. The teacher said, "Thanks! This is for my project for the career ladder!" This lazy teacher who didn't even do her own research for her project was on the career ladder.

    Another teacher on the career ladder was one that both my daughters had. They said she was one of the worst teachers they had ever had. She never gave any of their work back to them. I have no idea if she graded it or not. I think she pulled their grades out of her you-know-where. The worst thing was that her explanations were not very good. When students didn't understand and tried to ask her a question, she would explain it again in exactly the same words. When the student still didn't understand, she would tell them to come in after class so their non-comprehension didn't slow down the rest of the class (who didn't understand either.) She had really nice bulletin boards, though.

    The "super teachers" who did the observations weren't even always teachers in the field of the teacher they were observing, and sometimes they were not teachers of the same level: elementary, middle, or high school. Although they wouldn't say so, there were quotas as to how many could be picked because there was only so much money. The projects ended up in a file somewhere and illuminated no one. I only heard of one teacher who taught for a while at a school deemed to be "difficult." The union tried, but the results of this experiment in merit pay did not seem too impressive to me.

  4. I never felt any desire or need for some way to "advance" more in my career. I was very happy feeling that every year I learned more and became better, trying new things and getting better at knowing the needs of my students and creating a community in my classroom. I also never saw any reason to jump through hoops to get national accreditation. I do think that at the high school level it makes sense to have new teachers teach very few preps and veterans teach more.

    In our building we had the building rep for the union and the building committee members, all voted in by the teachers. When we saw a problem or thought of a way to make things run more smoothly, we would tell a building committee member and they would bring it up at the next meeting with the principal. Sometimes things got done or changes were made.

    It seems like about 30 years ago a movement was started to have more autonomy for schools within a district and teachers within a school. Then the reformster stuff started. It would be nice if teachers - the building committee and any other teachers who are interested and want to spend the time on it - to have some say in who is hired as principal; and department heads and anyone else in the department who is interested to have some say in who will be hired into their department.

    I always wanted to follow around a Central Administrator for a day and see what they actually did. It seems like secretaries do a lot of the actual work. In our district it's a secretary who takes care of all the paperwork for re-licensing. If she's sick, forget it, because no one else understands anything about it. And it really would make more sense to me for principals to have more teaching experience. The trouble is getting teachers to want to do it, since good teachers enjoy teaching, and if they just wanted to be supervisors or managers, they would have been that.

    I've always thought the English private school model with a Head Teacher voted in by the teachers for a couple of years but still teaching some classes was interesting. If you could figure out what exactly the principal does and make a list, maybe you could figure out if these duties could be done by a group of teachers in lieu of teaching some classes.

  5. I would suggest that most careers - at least the ones that are intrinsically rewarding - have little to no career ladder. If you're a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you start and end your career playing and perfecting basically the same canon of classical and contemporary music. If you're a writer, you sweat and bleed to write a book, and then you turn around and write...another book. If you're a surgeon, you spend your career perfecting your surgical knowledge and technique. Very few people in such careers yearn to climb "up" to management or administration. Sure, there is some advancement - a musician might become first chair or concert master or whatnot, for instance. But there is some similar advancement in teaching - department chair, for instance.

    It's only extrinsically rewarding (non-intrinsically rewarding) jobs like office worker bee that need a clear upward career path in order to "motivate" such workers to continue working hard and doing a good job. In teaching, music, medicine, etc. the motivation is the job itself.

    1. Thank you. You have made the points I had been hoping to elicit. As a teacher, professional musician and relative of doctors, psychologists, lawyers and engineers, only my lawyers have a "career ladder" (getting partner.) All others can only move "up" by changing institutions or changing jobs to some sort of managerial/supervisory position.

    2. Imagine telling a new hire CSO member, "this is what you're going to be doing the rest of your life". S/he would probably reply something like, "well, I sure hope so." On the other hand, imagine telling a junior account clerk sitting in a prairie-dog town cubicle farm the same thing. S/he'd probably commit suicide.

      The business types trying to control education these days understand only the cubicle farm to management track. They have no experience of - and can't imagine - doing and enjoying a job for the sake of the job itself or spending a lifetime working to improve at that particular job.

  6. "teachers are given tasks, but not ownership. They're allowed to ride in the front seat of the bus, but they can't drive. A real step on a career ladder gives you ownership and the power to chart a course, to make your mark by using your judgment to make things better."

    This is spot on. It's like the powers that be read all the available research on what motivates professionals and said, "Let's do the exact opposite."