On giving teachers time…

My job now is to prepare, inspire, and support pre-service teachers as they embark upon the greatest career in the world:  Teaching.  I have heard that, in China, teachers are called ‘culture makers’.  There is little more important than that.  And teaching is both intellectually challenging and emotionally challenging.  I want the amazing pre-service teachers I work with to be fully excited about the career they have chosen because I honestly believe they have chosen wisely: They have chosen the coolest most important job there is.  Yet, I know (because they tell me) that many, many, many people have actually Discouraged them from making this choice.  They have too much potential to be a teacher, they hear.  Or they could make so much more money somewhere else, they are told. I love these kids for hearing this often and yet saying ‘no – I am meant to be teacher and these other concerns are secondary to me’.  I respect them before I even meet them because of their choice. And then, once I actually get to work with them I am, each semester, newly inspired by how awesome they are.  They are passionate, hard-working, and fun.  They are sharp and critical, empathetic and deliberate. They are committed to being great.  There is nowhere else I would rather be than in the thick of it with teachers.

So, it is sometimes really hard for me to talk frankly about the unfortunate working conditions that have developed for teachers in the United States. I don’t want it to be true. I want to know that I am sending these amazing young practitioners out in to a world that embraces their passion and supports them in becoming great.  That inducts them into the workplace by providing them leadership and time.  That includes the space for honing their craft.  At many schools, principals are working hard to create that space for teachers, but again and again those efforts are limited by the budgets and the expectations that teachers are to be with students throughout their entire working day, as if planning and preparing for lessons was not an actual part of their work. Again and again teachers are identified as the problem and not the solution. And somehow, most of them stay.  Most of them continue to do their great work.

Countries that want to make a difference in Educational outcomes make two basic changes:  They address economic inequities and they entrust teachers to do the work of teaching.  In the United States we have ignored the underlying issue of economic inequity and we have created a culture that distrusts the work of the classroom teacher.

This distrust has led to the belief that we need to ‘find the great teachers’ and ‘remove the deadwood’.  This approach is , I daresay, ignorant. The teachers we have in the United States are certainly good enough to create school systems that are great.  But getting rid of bad teachers can’t be bad, right?  Wrong.  Putting increasing energy and resources into hyper-evaluating teacher performance creates a dark and depressing work environment filled with layers of policy that work against creating better classrooms for students. The work environment becomes increasingly about evaluating and less about supporting teachers. So our teachers, as a whole, have less and less opportunity to develop their craft.  Trust me when I tell you that teachers, more than any group of people I have ever met, WANT to improve. They want to engage in staff development, they want to be the best they can be for their students. But the system is not built for it. There is no time in the day for it. The somewhat inelegant way I discuss this with my graduate students is this: It doesn’t matter what meat you put into a sausage maker, in the end it will come out as sausage.  We are worrying about the meat (teachers) when we should be looking at the sausage maker (the systems and assumptions we have in place about schooling).

The system teachers enter is so rife with economic inequity and misguided policy that student outcomes are weakened yet the teachers are blamed for the bad taste. Teachers have no control over child poverty in the United States, and yet they take the blame for the ravages of poverty. Teachers have no control over the measurement-happy policies that destroy the potential for rich academic exploration, yet they take the blame when their intended student-outcomes are disrupted by these top-down multiple choice tests.

Do you want to make schools in the US the best in the world?  Do two things: Reduce economic inequity and give teachers more time to plan.  That’s it.   Okay, so you don’t want to reduce economic inequity?  That’s too big of a political leap? Let’s say we take a temporary pass on that. Then just give teachers more time to plan. More time to plan will create better working conditions.  Better working conditions will increase teacher retention. Increased teacher retention will keep us from losing talent to other occupations. Maintaining our talent level will increase the impact of the lesson study teachers engage in with the time they are given. This collegial interaction will boost the effectiveness of teachers and the academic outcomes of students.


Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.23.22 PM 5 Myths about our schools that fall apart when you look closer, The American Federation of Teachers.

This video from the AFT is the best I have seen on this topic.  In only 5 minutes it covers an amazing amount of territory.


Categories: Uncategorized


I am a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Elementary Education department at NC State where I specialize in Math Methods. I went to Duke where I earned a B.A. in Anthropology and played on the Golf Team. I have an M.Ed. in Special Education and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in mathematics education, both from NC State. My interest in Math waned in middle and high school. But when I began to support high school students in math as part of my job as a special educator, I became interested in the cultural and instructional aspects of mathematics. And now, 20 years later, that's pretty much all I think about. But I do love to swim, garden and, with my partner Jenn, watch our backyard bees make honey which they store in their hexagonal spaces--see 'the isoperimetric problem' or take a look at this website: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artsep98/hexagon.html


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One Comment on “On giving teachers time…”

  1. January 24, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

    Right on!

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