Monday, July 13, 2009

Marketing Ourselves as Teachers

I attended a conference recently where policymakers and representatives from higher education convened to discuss education policy. A group of teachers were there, too, and I was honored to be among them, hopefully there to advocate for my profession and represent what's going on at the school level in our country while at the same time learning some innovations that I could share with educators in my state.

We weren't there long before we started feeling uncomfortable and fidgeting in our seats. Many speakers who stood before us repeatedly uttered phrases like "bad teachers" and "fix teaching." Soon we felt defensive...and even angry...and wondered what all the "teacher bashing," as one of my colleagues put it, was about.

It didn't take me long to realize that there are very bright folks who don't really know what's going on in our schools. For example, an education professor from an extremely prestigious university in our country compared our schools to those in Australia. He spoke of online lesson plans and assessments that are available there as if they were recent inventions, and I wondered why he didn't know that teachers have been using those for over ten years in my own state. In addition, he said (twice) that we're "failing" as we attempt to teach middle school literacy. As a middle school reading teacher, of course I bristled at hearing those statements.

A congressman who sat in a breakout session with me mentioned the inequities of technology. He said, "I saw a classroom that had only five laptop computers...not very effective, but more effective than a teacher in the room."

Just after that a congresswoman from another state added, "The old teachers don't know about technology and are not comfortable with it." Immediately my mind raced to the list of veteran (not old) teachers who use instructional technology in their classrooms daily, the ones who have class blogs and wikis and who Skype with classrooms across the world.

One presenter said, "There are schools where the principal doesn't do all the leading; the teachers actually work together, and that's the nature of the work." I thought "DUH!" Does the world outside of our school buildings not know that we've been collaborating like that for years?

So after I calmed myself from the range of emotions I felt at this conference I had to ask myself why these seemingly important people were so misinformed. I also wondered why all of the answers seemed to be relative to teachers instead of directed toward other stakeholders in education. Here's what I came up with:

First, all of the research points to the teacher as being the most important factor in whether a child learns or not. It's not the parent, or the school administration, or the football's the teacher. So because so much is focused on there being a quality teacher in every classroom, that's where the finger gets pointed when things go wrong.

And while I do agree that there should be a highly qualified teacher (as No Child Left Behind mandates) in every classroom, I can tell you that I can't deliver quality instruction without the support of the parents, the instructional leadership of my school administration, and the collaboration I have with other important individuals in my students' lives - like the football coach and the band director.

Another reason those who aren't in the school buildings point to "bad teachers" is because we, as a profession, don't market ourselves well. Here's an example: over and over at this conference I heard references to Teach for America. Yes, there are amazing TFA teachers all over the country; I even work with one. TFA takes highly motivated college graduates, provides them with intense, condensed (five weeks) training, and places them in our neediest schools. And although the retention rates are nothing to brag about (TFA reports that retention is difficult to determine, but many articles report that TFA teachers leave after 2-3 years), the marketing that includes billboards, television commercials, and education journal advertising makes TFA look glamorous as well as successful.

So what are classroom teachers doing to market themselves? Well, just today I read this "status update" on a Facebook page - "Another long day at the pool. Being a teacher in the summer is hard work." Last week I read this one - "Summer - the reason I teach."

Although most teachers spend their entire summers "off" at trainings and planning with other teachers (I've seen half the staff at my school this week), those bragging about their leisurely summers are not getting any points with the policymakers who work all year. No wonder they don't want to raise teacher salaries.

In addition, the teacher "venting" that occurs in our communities most likely indicates to others that we are not committed to doing whatever it takes to teach our children. It probably sounds like we're only committed to whining about how difficult our jobs are.

So teachers, it is up to us to change the thinking of legislators, higher ed representatives, and policymakers. It is up to us to market ourselves as professionals who can make a difference in the lives of children, instead of "bad teachers" who are uncomfortable with technology.

The last session I attended at the conference included presenters who were working on a report outlining the qualities of a teacher leader. At the beginning of the presentation, the participants were given a handout listing the members of the committee working on the report. I immediately scanned the list to see how many teachers had been included. I wasn't surprised to see that there were none.

I guess they figured we were all at the pool...