This Thursday, I am meeting with 20+ 3rd and 4th year teachers in the School District of Philadelphia. What is unique about this group is that they are all veterans of Teach for America and graduates of the Masters or Certification program at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. These are the teachers who have decided to remain in Philadelphia classrooms beyond their two year commitment to TFA.
I first met these teachers in 2003 when I became an instructor in the graduate program. I had a troubled relationship with these young teachers at first. I found some of them to be arrogant and dismissive, if not downright disdainful of veteran teachers. As a highly experienced high school teacher at that time, I became angry and one night in class exploded, “Don’t you ever go to the experienced teachers in your building for assistance? Don’t you think that they might have something to offer? ” They looked at me incredulously until one brave person said, “There are no experienced teachers in my building.”
That was my dose of reality and my wake up call. Certainly, I, who was teaching at a center city magnet school had abandoned the inner city high school where I taught for 20 years after becoming frustrated by a series of increasingly inept principals and the dismantling of programs my colleagues and I had developed in the early and mid 1990’s. Most of my experienced colleagues had followed suit, transferring to magnet schools, moving into administrative positions, lighting out for the suburbs or taking early retirement. So this young woman’s comment opened my eyes to the bigger picture.
I could not resent nor criticize the presence of TFA in the School District of Philadelphia without taking some of the responsibility myself. That new insight enabled me to see the TFA program and the TFA teachers in a new light and as part of a bigger picture in which teachers of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels are being alienated from their own knowledge and values, discouraged and pushed from the classroom by policies that force them to teach in ways that they know will not be effective with their students.
Here is a the text of a talk that I gave in 2006 at the CED, METLIFE FOUNDATION AND THE PHILADELPHIA EDUCATION FUND FORUM IN PHILADELPHIA
on teacher retention and development. In it, I call for better professional development that engages teachers intellectually and builds on their knowledge and experience. Without this, two things will happen — neither of which will be good for America’s students: smart, dedicated teachers will leave education for other fields and/or the people who remain will have a limited view of what is educationally possible for themselves and for their students.
Good Afternoon and thank you for inviting me to be on this panel today responding to The Met Life Survey of the American Teacher. And you’ll have to forgive me if I talk quickly or take more than my allotted time, because it’s been a number of years since I have been asked to speak publicly about teaching in Philadelphia in Philadelphia– despite the fact that I have been teaching in this district since 1974 — and all of my years have been spent in a classroom with a full roster. That means that for nearly thirty four years I have taught English and Drama at five different schools, in seven different grade levels and over 3,000 students from all parts of this city. Over the years, I have earned a Masters degree in Education and completed all of the course work for a PhD in Reading Writing and Literacy. In the course of these 34 years, I have learned quite a bit about my students, about teaching, and most importantly the most effective ways of teaching my students. And I am not the only one. I have met thousands of teachers nationwide in teacher networks like the Philadelphia Writing Project – a highly effective professional development organization that fosters school-university collaboration.
But increasingly over the past five years, we the teachers have not been asked what we think. In fact, in many cases, we have been told that what we think doesn’t matter and we should just shut up and do what we are told – even when what we are told to do is not working – is not reaching our students – is not inspiring nor engaging our students — is not tapping into their enormous human potential – I am not alone in observing that the upsurge in school violence and student anger occurred during the build up to the PSSAs where students were being endlessly drilled with test preparation worksheets while being bombarded by PA announcements urging them on the proficiency, not so subtly reminding them of their inadequacies and failures. The emphasis on these test scores as if they are the only indicator of student achievement has had a deadening effect on teaching and learning and I believe that if this trend continues the exodus from the classroom, particularly in urban school will continue – at both ends… from the new teachers who have become discouraged to the veteran teachers whose knowledge and expertise is negated and devalued.
But then again – who asked me? In fact who asked any of the teachers how this is all working in our classrooms? Often, on the few occasions like today when I am asked to speak, I am met with dismissive comments like – “you’re the exception” These other teachers need someone to tell them what to do, what to teach and how to teach it.” I am here to tell you that I am not an exception at all – I have been the beneficiary of extraordinary professional development and programs that have fostered my intellectual growth and provided me with a supportive community of equally passionate professionals To dismiss me as the exception is to disrespect the potential of the people in our profession and to abdicate responsibility for supporting the kinds of professional development programs that not only “develop the teacher” but enable the teacher to generate knowledge and participate in developing the profession.
We – and by we I mean all of the stakeholders here today – have to stop thinking of teaching as “an entry level position” — a place where someone begins their career on the road to a position of leadership outside of the classroom — —Currently, the system rewards people for moving out of the classroom – it rewards them with money, prestige and influence. This system of rewards has contributed to the teacher shortage –
It has taken the most experienced teachers out of the classroom, and it has fostered a culture of disrespect for the teachers who remain – because, by the logic of these values, if teachers were any good or knew anything at all we would have moved out of the classroom already – We need to change our thinking about teaching and teachers – and we need to restructure our human resources to make the best use of the experienced teachers. To this end, I would like to say that I think the district is on the right track by moving the teacher coaches out of their cars ( where they would travel from school to schools) and into a school building. I would go even one step further by suggesting that one way in which we could address the teacher shortage, especially in the “hard to staff” schools is by having the teacher coaches or school growth leader or whatever title we are giving these experienced teachers actually teach in these schools. Give them two or three periods a day in which they put their expertise into practice to serve the students at their school while simultaneously providing living examples of effective teaching that new teachers have a hard time imagining. Additionally, create authentic professional development in which new and experienced teachers examine lesson plans, look at student work and observe each other teaching in a supportive, intellectually stimulating environment that is responsive to the needs of their particular students. As human beings, teachers young and old need a sense of purpose – they need to feel that their work is making a difference and that they are valued and supported by the community at large in that work.
Yes – there are many many new teachers in the toughest schools – and many of these new teachers are underprepared. In fact, I have worked as a teacher educator in Penn’s Masters Degree program for the Teach for America Teachers – and I have been inspired by the commitment that these young people are bringing to the classrooms… These teachers come into the classroom with a two year commitment, but I have been encouraged this year by the number of teachers who are choosing to stay on. Jason Watson a second year Teach for America teacher from Nebraska who is remaining as a teacher in Philadelphia beyond his two year commitment has said, “Teach for America gave me the skills I needed to survive in the classroom for the short term – Penn and the Writing Project helped me to develop the knowledge and practices I need to remain in teaching as a life time career.”
We are at an interesting Crossroads right now in the teaching profession – there is a generation gap between the new and experienced teachers. For many of us, these new teachers are our children and they are looking to us for answers to their frustration and despair. If we do not take some positive action immediately to re-involve teachers in the professional work at school, we will continue to lose teachers at both ends of the experience continuum. Substantive, rigorous, engaging professional development that is rooted in our actual classrooms and that values teachers knowledge, experience and expertise is the only way we are going to be able to keep teachers in our schools. Teachers, like our students need to have agency in our lives and be encouraged to grow.