Top Teachers in America are Bipolar

By Claudia Felske — Okay, I’ll admit it. My attention  getter is  a bit on the tawdry and  dramatic  side,  but according to  the 2013  Perspective  of  Irreplaceable Teachers: What America’s Best Teachers Think  about  Teaching, America’s top  teachers have a  love-hate relationship with their  profession: loving the act of teaching  children while loathing the teaching conditions that surround  them.

 Worse yet, 75% of top teachers plan on leaving their positions in  the next 5  years, a most troubling exodus. Exactly what education  cannot afford.

The study, conducted by the nonprofit The New Teacher Project founded by controversial education reformer Michelle Rea, surveyed 117 of America’s top teachers representing 36 states and all 10 of the nation’s largest school districts, collectively having won almost the nation’s major teaching awards including National Board certification, state “Teacher of the Year” honors, Milken Educator Awards, TNTP, NEA and KIPP.

The study provides a glimpse into the minds of our country’s most successful teachers, and the view is of critical concern. The survey focussed on three areas: 1) How successful teaching should be measured, 2) How teaching can be improved, 3) How teachers perceive their profession.

How to measure good teaching
Top educators agree that successful teaching is multi-dimensional. It must be measured not only by student test performance, but also long-term student success, quality of student engagement, and evaluative feedback from students, peers, and administrators as opposed to a laser focus on standardized test results.

In fact, half of the teachers surveyed believe standardized tests do more harm than good. While acknowledging that measuring student learning is important, they believe standardized tests narrow our definition of what learning is, make educators focus on less rigorous thinking “because deeper thinking is harder to assess,” and take away valuable teaching time in the interest of test prep.

What contributes to successful teaching
First, what factors are least likely to foster good teaching. Teachers respond in unison: formal education programs and staff professional development. Teachers cite lack of rigor in the teacher prep programs and lack of relevance of their professional development to actual classroom experiences.

This is astounding since these are the two dominant paths for teacher development, and both are ineffective in the minds of top teachers. It suggests that the millions spent by the government, universities and other institutions have a largely negligible effect on the quality of teaching.

What would most contribute to improved teaching? Teachers crave the opportunity to master new methods and practices over a sustained period with structured feedback from their peers. In other words, time and support to incorporate best practices in their own classrooms.

How educators feel about their profession
Here’s the loving/hating part. America’s top teachers unabashedly love teaching, but in the same breath, they increasingly loathe the profession. They cite challenges including low pay, excessive bureaucracy, poor working conditions and ineffective leaders and colleagues.

Teaching is great; being a teacher not so much. Their long-term plans are telling: 75% of this distinguished group of educators plan on leaving their current position within 5 years, 60% plan on leaving the teaching profession altogether. This compares with a 2011 figure 43%.

In a field that needs more than ever to attract and retain outstanding educators, these statistics warrant serious soul searching for our nation. Loving teaching, but the  field, not so much:  here’s a sampling of this dichotomy from teachers, in their own words:

“I love being with kids every day and hearing them say, “I get it now, miss.” I enjoy figuring out and applying strategies that will help my kids think and learn.”

“Almost every moment of the week, I feel that I am either sacrificing my students’ learning or my own health and personal satisfaction. I am constantly deciding to cut corners for students in order to prioritize my own life, or to prioritize my students and put my personal life second.”

“With teaching, every day is different. You are constantly in motion, engaged and working toward something that is more important than yourself. Your work is critical, life-changing, and ultimately the most empowering gift you can give to your students.”

“I am particularly frustrated with how much of my time is demanded for things that do not help my students in any way. Bureaucracy, a lack of policy dedicated  to students, and top-down governance are destroying the profession.”

The study concludes that education today offers teachers “tremendous personal rewards but also exacts a great personal cost.” In the current educational debate which centers around finger pointing and reform-of-the-day, perhaps we need to take a step back and listen to the cries or our top teachers before they’re no longer around to be heard.

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