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What Would it Take to Professionalize Teaching?

October 10, 2013

Over the past five years, there has been an unprecedented focus on what constitutes effective teaching and how to measure teacher performance. Teacher preparation, evaluation, and the characteristics of effective teaching are at the center of contemporary education research and policymaking.

Yet teaching is not afforded the same status as other professions in terms of recognition, pay, and career advancement opportunities. As a result, nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year, and our finest teachers are among those who exit our nation’s classrooms for good.

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) believes that five key structures—found in almost every other field—have the potential to transform teaching into a profession that fosters continuous improvement, high expectations, and shared accountability. A new white paper authored by five state teachers of the year outlines these structures and includes first-person accounts of how these practices can work in schools today.

Actionable Feedback to Help Teachers Improve

Professional development is important, and should be driven by actionable and timely feedback. Research shows that school principals can easily identify which teachers are the most skilled and the least skilled; however, they struggle to distinguish teaching performance for the vast majority of teachers whose teaching practice is average or near average.

Opportunities for Career Advancement In the Classroom

While most professions have career advancement mechanisms in place to provide professional growth for practitioners, education does not. Career ladders and lattices—such as the progression intern to resident to physician—allow individuals to take on new responsibilities as they demonstrate expertise. Unless a teacher is willing to leave the classroom, there is little avenue for teacher advancement within the profession. Schools where teachers play leadership roles like mentoring less experienced or struggling teachers tend to have higher retention rates, a factor that positively affects student learning.

Distributed Leadership

Principals undertake an enormous amount of responsibility. The idea that one person, or one person and his or her assistants can do all of the things required to run a safe, successful school, is unrealistic. Research commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that distributed leadership—where teachers take on leadership roles and influence over decisions made about the school community and the instructional program—has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership. Teacher leaders hungry for a role in shared decision-making impacting classroom practice may be more likely to stay in the profession.

Collaborative Practice

Unlike many other professions, collaboration among teachers is not standard practice. In fact, many teachers teach inside their classrooms with little to no interaction with their colleagues. Teaching is often referred to as the most isolated of professions. Although there is value in collaboration for both teachers and students, many of the resources required to collaborate are lacking, in particular, time and scheduling structures to support collaborative models.

Guiding Principles for the Profession

Most professions have principles by which the profession is practiced. In the current absence of such principles for teaching, educators are being held to various sets of standards, all with the purpose of holding them accountable to the public. The process of developing guiding principles across the profession must be led by educators with the goals of increasing respect for teachers and professionalizing the job of educating children. 

NNSTOY believes that these structures are critical to creating a profession that attracts, develops, and retains highly effective teachers. By developing a deliberate, research-based approach to professionalizing teaching, we can increase accountability for the success of all students.

Visit the NNSTOY website to read the full white paper, Re-Imagining Teaching: Five Structures to Transform the Profession

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