The Influence of Teachers by John Merrow

The Influence of Teachers

A new book by John Merrow asks whether improving the quality of
teachers might best begin with improving the job of teaching.
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Great teachers are the key, but many leave the profession

Deep down some of us just know that great teachers are the key. We know it because of a teacher in fourth grade who encouraged us to keep on drawing. Or a 7th grade social studies teacher who brought history to life and convinced us that politics could be honorable. Because of a special teacher or two, when you hear about education’s problems, you know deep down that all would be well if today’s schools only had more great teachers like those.

On the other hand, suppose you are one of the millions who gave up on teaching, frustrated by its pettiness and daily humiliations. You might still be in front of a classroom if conditions had been different. And so you know in your heart that the root of education’s problem is the job and its lousy working conditions.

The job itself, with low pay and prestige, may be the problem

That’s the dilemma, and the ongoing battle: Are mediocre teachers the heart of education’s problems? Or is it the job itself, with its low pay and even lower prestige? Those two very different analyses of education’s problem are competing for domination, and whoever gets to define the problem is likely to control education policies for many years.

If the problem is mediocre teachers, the solution is obvious: if they cannot be retrained, replace them with better people. Today this better people approach seems to be gaining favor, spurred on by Waiting for Superman, Oprah, NBC’s Education Nation and more.

The competing better job view holds that the problem is with the job itself: teachers aren’t respected, classes are too large, administrators don’t punish unruly students, and so forth. Therefore, the solution is to make teaching prestigious, rewarding, and attractive—a job worth fighting for.

What would make teaching a better job?

  • Teaching will be a better job when principals have authority over hiring their staff but are savvy about bringing trusted veteran teachers into the process.
  • It will be a better job when teacher evaluations of students count at least as much as the score on a one-time standardized test.
  • It will be a better job when employment contracts are not for life and employee evaluations are fair and thorough, with all due process rights respected.
  • Teaching will be a better job when everyone’s pay depends in part on how students perform academically. However, merit bonuses must go to the school’s entire staff, so that the art, music and physical education teachers and even the school secretary have a vested interest in success.
  • Teaching will be a better job when we recognize that the world has changed, and the job of a teacher is to help young people learn to ask good questions. With the flood of information around them, young people need help separating wheat from chaff.
  • When teaching becomes the better job as described above, the brain drain will no longer be a problem–and we will discover that many teachers now in the classroom have been better people themselves all along.

Education|Evolving might add to John’s list of good ideas

Would teaching be a better job and career if teachers had more professional control over what happens in the school? If in exchange for accountability, teachers were given the authority to themselves determine learning program, budget, and policies?

This is happening increasingly around the nation in what are being called “teacher run schools”. The trend is gaining coverage in national news media. You can read more about the idea, on our Teacher Professional Partnerships subsite.