You are a valuable part of this school community.
Who would have thought that such a simple statement, uttered by an administrator, could make such a difference in the life of a teacher? Too often, it is something teachers never hear, even the really good ones. Is it that administration doesn't know who the really good teachers are, or even worse, that they don't care? Is this The Widget Effect at its worst? Do principals actually believe that all teachers, as long as they are certified, are interchangeable and expendable?
I know I am a little behind, but I was finally able to sit down and read The Irreplaceables, a study by TNTP about how great teachers are leaving at an alarming rate because administrators are not enforcing high expectations or telling educators that they are valued, appreciated, or giving them meaningful feedback on what they do. These Irreplaceable teachers often love teaching, and the students who have them are more likely to say that their teacher cares, doesn't let them give up when things get tough, and makes learning enjoyable. Those teachers that can make this connection with their students leave lasting effects for a lifetime. Think about who your favorite teacher was and why. I am willing to bet that not only were they passionate about what they did and the subject they taught, but they were able to see you as a person and not just another student to give a grade to. Students know who the great teachers are and tell them often. These are the priceless gems that sparkle brilliantly when things in classroom life seem stressful and bleak. So if kids can tell teachers that they make a difference, why don’t adults do it too?
So, what causes this phenomenon? According to Retaining Teacher Talent: The View From Generation Y, by Learning Point Associates and Public Agenda, a study done in the 1960s claims that teachers have remained largely egalitarian for decades because teaching is seen a service career and in order to prove you are dedicated to the greater good, you should give more than you receive. To show ambition, or have a desire to be acknowledged or rewarded, was considered suspect. While this theory may still hold some water, times have changed. New Generation Y teachers are not content with education as a static profession with little feedback and no career continuum available if you want to remain in the classroom. Call me crazy, but I would venture to guess that those members of Gen X and Baby Boomers who are in that top 20% are disgruntled too. Everyone wants to know that the work they do is valued and that they make a difference. We may be on a mission, but we are not missionaries.
The Irreplaceables talks about that top 20% of teachers considered to be the very best, not just in regard to test scores, but also in providing an engaging learning experience for their students. I would argue that most award winning teachers, whether local, county, state or national fall into this category. Yet, I have heard horror stories from these same award winning teachers, after being recognized by external organizations, about how they are ridiculed and shunned by their colleagues and administration simply because they have been singled out and recognized. Others think these award winners believe themselves “too good” to work amongst their mere mortal colleagues. Haven’t they actually disproven this theory by being great teachers in the first place? The great ones I know don’t teach for themselves. I have even heard administrators tell me they would not nominate educators for awards because they don’t want to create tension in the department or school. So people go on being unrecognized, the Widget Effect continues, and the profession suffers because no one will speak up to recognize excellence for fear of showing favoritism by administrators and ostracism by staff. And we wonder why we are not treated like professionals? Some teachers give up because they realize working your tail off is futile and they become burned out. The worst effect of this neglect is that great teachers leave schools that desperately need them, or worse yet, leave the profession all together. According to Leading Gen Y Teachers: Emerging Strategies for School Leaders, by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, when teachers leave, there are additional costs in the form of lowered morale and loss of institutional memory. The negative effects discussed in The Widget Effect and The Irreplaceables trickle down from administration until the ideas permeate the staff as well, who police themselves. It has created a climate and culture which feeds upon itself, discourages excellence, and urges a mediocre status quo.
What is it going to take to keep you here?
A question with immeasurable value. Teachers, especially the new Generation Y, want to see that there is room for growth and that they are recognized for their accomplishments. In the world outside of education, these factors rate even more highly than salary when it comes to motivation. Education is no different. Why should you have to be an administrator in order to be a leader? In many districts there is no career continuum for those teachers with excellent skills in research, peer coaching, or understanding of policy to actually make a difference. Leading GenY Teachers says that the positive effects of school leadership are greater when leadership is widely distributed among staff members. So why haven't we done it? Is it a matter of those that have control who are not willing to relinquish it, or do our colleagues create a climate that makes it impossible? I have seem collaborative environments work in many schools, elementary schools in particular, but high schools seem less willing to share. When I am talking about leadership roles, I am not talking about uncompensated ones where responsibilities are heaped on an already full course load, that does not show respect, and I am not talking about merit pay either. There are plenty of hybrid roles that can be created, or honoraria that can be paid. Much of leadership is coaching, just not on an athletic field. Soemthing needs to be done in order to attract and retain great teachers, no matter what their age, because the students suffer when they leave. Retaining Teacher Talent notes that the research suggests that many young teachers leave the profession not because they are ineffective, it is because they feel stifled. This can be fixed.
I would argue that the effects of The Irreplaceables trickle down to our students too.
Just as teachers need be recognized for what they do, our students need to hear it even more. While some may believe students already feel entitled and have too much confidence, there are many who fall through the cracks every day because no one ever took the time to get to know them, find out what their gifts were, and provide some guidance to help them achieve their hopes and dreams. Everyone wants to be acknowledged when they do something well, and everyone deserves constructive feedback. Imagine handing back class assignments and they have no grades and no comments because everyone will receive the same average grade. How would the students know how to improve? Why should they bother? We would not do this to our students, so why do we allow it to happen to us? Have the conditions in Widget Effect and Irreplaceables not only permeated faculty, but also effected our students? If a climate of high expectations and acknowledgement does not exist among the administration and faculty, how likely is it that there will be high expectations for the students? I see it in those teachers who maintain absolute control of their classes where students will never be smarter than the teacher and are bullied or ridiculed when they ask questions. This has got to stop.
To you top 20%, please don’t go because your students need you. Perhaps it is time that we learn a lesson from the kids. You are valued. What do we have to do to keep you?
Weisberg, Daniel, Sexton, Susan, Mulhern, Jennifer, & Keeling, David (2009)The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act Upon Teacher Effectiveness http://widgeteffect.org/
TNTP (2012) The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools http://tntp.org/irreplaceables
Coggshall, J. G., Ott, A., Behrstock, E. & Lasagna, M., (2010). Retaining Teacher Talent: The View from Generation Y. http://www.learningpt.org/expertise/educatorquality/genY/Gen%20Y%20report.pdf
Behrstock, E., & Clifford, M. (2009). Leading Gen Y: Emerging Strategies for School Leaders. Washington, DC: National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality http://www.tqsource.org/publications/gen_y.php