Teachers as a Sustainable Resource: Supporting Mid-Career and Veteran Teachers

As education policy makers have discussed appropriate uses of stimulus funds, I’ve watched the debate with mixed feelings. While initiatives like performance-based pay, removing the charter cap, and extended school days might yield higher student performance in the short-term, none of them address the most critical issue to academic success in the long run—teacher sustainability. We know that the single most important factor in a child’s education is a quality teacher. That said, teachers are not replaceable cogs in a system, to be used for a few years, disposed of, and replaced with newer, shinier versions. Yet many of the proposed reforms seem destined to result in burnout.

The notion that teaching has become an unsustainable profession is both well known, and unknown. We know that many teachers leave within the first 3 years. Yet, as a society, we don’t seem to know that teaching has become so demanding that it’s difficult to consider a lifelong career as an educator. Teaching, after all, has long been viewed as a profession with “mothers’ hours”, allowing parents to be home when their children finish school. But in an era of standards-based reform, the term “mothers’ hours” refers to the contractually-mandated time teachers must spend at school, but it does nothing to encompass the amount of work that teachers must do to ensure their students’ success. In the face of disaggregated student achievement data, constant AYP status updates, and high-stakes testing, teachers have a very clear sense of their students’ academic performance, as well as how they need to be performing in order to meet state standards. If data shows that a child is reading 2-3 years below grade level, how can any teacher sit with that knowledge, and still leave the building at 1:40 in good conscience? Most can’t, and those that do are frequently not meeting their students’ needs. So while bad teaching is sustainable and adheres to mothers’ hours, good teaching is neither sustainable, nor limited to the confines of the 7-hour school day.

Planning engaging lessons, making regular contact with families, assessing student work, holding after-school tutoring sessions—these aspects of teaching are just as important as the lessons delivered within the context of a school day, and they cannot be completed within a 45-minute P&D period once each day. Many teachers I know start their school days at 6:30 a.m., and often don’t end them until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. We try to keep Saturdays sacred, but know that our Sundays will be given over to work again. And we wonder, all the while: How will I keep working at this level of intensity for 10 years, never mind 20 or 30?

Teachers who leave within the first three years walk out just as they are beginning to develop the skills necessary to be effective. In recent years, new teacher induction has come to be seen as a way to help teachers in years 1-3 hone their craft and stay in the classroom. But what of teachers in subsequent years? Why do we assume that once teachers make it over the 3rd year hurdle, they will commit to the profession for life? As teachers get older, their responsibilities outside the classroom also increase. Eventually, they may reach an intractable dilemma—forced to choose to be less effective teachers, or less involved in their home lives. As a result, many leave the profession. This attrition is even more damaging to our students than the departure of early-career teachers. Most mid-career teachers have developed the skills necessary to be successful in the classroom. They haven’t burnt out, and haven’t given up. They don’t leave at the moment when they are “getting good”—they leave after they’ve proven to be adept teachers. Their loss, therefore, is sure to have an effect on the academic success of students, particularly when inexperienced teachers replace them.

How do we redesign the work of teaching so that it is both focused on efficacy and sustainability? How do we broaden the conversation on boosting/rewarding teacher performance past the topic of teacher salaries? How do we expand the vision of teacher retention past the first three years? As we consider sustainability in so many other facets of our lives—transportation, housing, use of natural resources—how do we bring that mindset to the education world as well?  Effective teaching is not a resource easily found or manufactured, and thus, demands that we find ways to sustain it if we don’t want to lose it.

Guestblogger Neema Avashia, Teacher, Boston Public Schools

12 Replies to “Teachers as a Sustainable Resource: Supporting Mid-Career and Veteran Teachers”

  1. This is a terrific post! As a former BPS teacher after two years of teaching, you have hit the nail on the head with this one….

    I am so glad that you have done such a great job articulating this underlying tension between sustainability and efficacy in the teaching profession. It is a perspective that needs to be heard but is often ignored due to the “students come first” mentality. However, as you’ve pointed out, in order to truly put students first, we need to make sure that our system will allow teachers to be effective in their jobs without burning out. Neglecting teacher sustainability is going to backfire in the long run, but by the time people figure that out, I fear it will be too late 🙁

    And honestly, those who have never taught, CANNOT fully comprehend what you are saying.

  2. The classic “power curve” where it takes everything you’ve got to get started, then the energy requirement decrease as we increase in efficiency and effectiveness. As the demands and requirements increase, the need for more energy and devotion to the task comes in, about years 3-8 or so. Of course many new teachers are now seasoned teacher by then, but they’ve gotten married, may have children, and other demands of life. Their collateral duties increase with minimal stipend. If we continue to emphasize the business model and try to apply business metrics (student achievement on arbitrary tests that meet arbitrary standards) then why not apply the whole business compensation model too? The better performers usually get rewarded with greater remuneration and perks. Can you imagine a car dealer paying its top salesman the same as the new hire who makes no sales for a year? Not going to happen. They have standards and achievement goals too!
    Money isn’t everything is what “they” keep saying. Let’s see, why would PhDs apply to teach at a school in NYC where they are offering 125,000 to start? Money is the most powerful lubricant to human endeavors.
    Solutions? How about restructuring the pay so that the money goes to where the “rubber meets the road”? How about charging parents for the bus rides? How about charging for the extra hours of instruction? Where else do they do free overtime? Let’s make education a true business based model and let’s see how much the parents really want a solid education for their kids, with a top of the line teacher. top musical teachers and golf teachers demand top dollars. So should top teachers. Then they wouldn’t leave.

    And those that (routinely) leave at 1:40 or whenever the last bell rings, get them out of there. Unless, of course, they are leaving on that rare occasion when they have a medical or other appointment.

    Good start to a very important component of the education Gordian knot. amakore

  3. Great post!

    Teachers who care about their work have a continuous learning curve – new ideas (usually from outside the profession); new demands; new problems, new challenges. It may become more rewarding as they remain in the classroom, but it’s seldom easier. There’s no resting on laurels for teachers.

  4. I think money is a partial solution…but I’m not convinced it’s the real fix in the long run. A colleague of mine, Bob Ettinger, once dreamt up this ‘sustainable school’, where teachers’ workloads were cut in half–half the students, half the courseload–thus giving them time to work on planning, assessment, parent contact during the school day. In all honesty, you could probably pay me LESS and I’d still be excited to work there, because I think I’d be more effective with the students I taught, and more likely to stay in the work for the long haul…

    “Pay more” feels like the quick and easy solution, but I don’t think that this issue can be solved quickly or easily…

  5. Sustainable High: Teacher Day

    Lesson Plans: 1 hour
    Grade, record, analyze student work: 1 hour
    Rehearse lesson plan, make copies, organize room, get supplies: 1 hour
    Record demerits and rewards, make parent phone calls: 1 hour
    Prep for strugglers: 30 minutes
    After school help to strugglers: 1 hour
    Emails/admin: 30 minutes
    Duties: 30 minutes

    Teach: 2 one-hour periods, same prep.

    6 hours of prep and follow-up would support 2 good hours of teaching.

    Lunch, PM coffee break, 15 minute walk: 1 hour

    No meetings unless teachers rated them 8/10, no PD unless teachers rated it 8/10.

  6. Another way to think about efficacy: We work in a job that requires creativity, high social skills, intellect, current professional knowledge, and a lot of energy. Our best moments have to be when our students are with us, and our daily routines need to be focused on that class time. So we should be rested and feel like humans. Even in residential schools, the teachers have some time to recharge. Maybe the equation of commitment to long hours is faulty.

    I have been dismayed in the past several years to learn that teachers are being basically commanded to go to student games and expand their knowledge of the students. Teachers absolutely should do this kind of thing, but they should never be commanded. That coercion undermines the whole point of going to the game. Further, the same principle applies to extra help sessions.

    We burn out when we lose the power to decide to do the right thing on our own.

  7. I think technology aid must be sought to facilitate teachers, so the smarter the teachers are they will seek technology involvement to make it more useful for themselves and students and also making it fun and easy for both. FunnelBrain, which is an online study group based collaborative learning system is one such platform that aids teachers very well. It has already drawn attention of many professors and students.

  8. The problem in its current state cannot be addressed by quick fixes. But I can offer 2 thoughts:
    1. Getting parents more involved can be one way to achieve sustainable learning experience for the child and lessen the workload on teachers. It seems that the entire workload of “educating” a child is being put on the teacher. Part of the reason teaching is such a high touch profession is that the teacher needs to develop a personal relationship with the student to teach effectively. In some sense this type of a bond is already existing between the parent and the student, but I doubt parents are as effective or as inclined as professionally trained teachers. While parents can’t be asked to grade or prepare a lesson plan, they can definitely be asked to share in the responsibility of following up on the Teacher identified areas of improvement for the student. At the end of the day, the parents need to acknowledge that schools are not the entire solution.

    2. So it seems to me that corporate america does a good job of separating brain work and muscle work for every business function/process. It then leverages the right kind of resource (human and technological) for each work type and manages to do a somewhat better job or keeping resources “sustainable” and “effective”.
    Over-doing this type of work classification does have its downsides, but I doubt that this concept is being leveraged in teaching. If the core value of good teachers is in the classroom or in personalised intruction, then there might be an opportunity in using non-teaching resources to help the teachers. It just seems like teachers are a 1 person team responsible for everything that goes in to teaching a child. And if you look at any business organization, there is a team of multiple people behind a happy customer.
    Clearly this approach requires hiring more people but if the right type and amount of work is delegated to other members in a Teacher team, the teacher’s overall efficacy will improve. I think the increased cost incurred in this mechanism will yield better results than increased pay for teachers.

  9. Unfortunately in many schools where improvement is needed, support of parents is very minimal. Teachers can work the hardest, come up with new ideas to teach the material and provide stimulation to motivate students but if parents have time and capabilities to pitch in the results would be more obvious. The elderly retired work force can provide this non-teaching resources which would be beneficial to students, teachers and elderly people. it would be win win situation.

  10. Thank you, Vishu, for broaching a point I rarely hear in these discussions: one person cannot effectively do all of the things today’s teacher is expected to to. A simple observation that should be obvious, but I don’t often hear people talk about it. Is that because we’re so blinded by the old paradigm leftover from the one-room schoolhouse days that we can’t even begin to imagine a school that builds in supports its professionals as well as their clients? The rest of the professions get this, as you say. Even nurses have assistants to change bedpans, and no doctor would be expected to assess, operate on, and orchestrate the care of 150 clients in one day, with all of the support systems doctors already have in place notwithstanding. We’ve come along way from considering surgeons as “sawbones,” yet teachers are still romanticized, for purposes of convenience (primarily economical, I’d guess), as solitary agents who can do it all. Well, we can’t. Times have changed, and with them the demands. If society really wants higher student achievement, we have to stop trying to ignore this reality. You can’t get to the students except through their teachers. Schools need to look more like the other professions in terms of these support systems, then. With a little imagination and a lot of redesign, the role of “preservice teachers” could be elevated to “apprenctice teachers” who, after a semester of traditional student teaching, begin a year of apprenticeship where they receive a stipend and get an extended opportunity to hone their craft. Nonteaching duties could be given to nonprofessionals freeing up time for in-house, just-in-time professional development for teachers. Certainly I am not the first to suggest these possibilities, but why are they part of the prevailing conversation on educational reform? I suspect an ugly paradox at work: The same society that claims to value education for all its children does not really value the people who educate them. I think many teachers would agree with Neema Avashia’s statement regarding a willingness to take even less pay in exchange for more support built into the system to help boost student achievement.

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