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...


Strosie said...

Kuods to your blog! I often get tired too of hearing "uneffective teachers" when myself and several other teachers I know give above and beyond what is called to us. We often feel like we're not being met in the middle with the lawmakers in our state. While I love teaching in SC, I do believe that our lawmakers set our standards way to high for our students. We push them and ourselves to meet these standards and yet they are never satisfied with the results. Just this past year they realized that some things were unfair and not aligned with National standards. I agree that the job is not just the teachers but the whole community. With a month to school starting back, I have already been in my classroom several times preparing for the new school year. Thanks for reminding me to "market myself" to those around me. Bravo!

Linda Fox said...

YES! I taught last year at a large city system (HATED it!). What fried my backside was sitting in "professional development" that repeated things I had learned more than a year before that. It wasn't the only time that a PD person treated us as though we were idiots.

Would it have killed her to ask how many had some familiarity with the topic in question? Some of us could have taught it ourself.

Of course, that would have been bad - she wouldn't have taken home the cash for 'teaching' what we already knew.

Tom said...

Changing the general impression of teachers is going to be one of the hardest things for our profession. On one hand, you have those "Teacher Bashers" who seem to get a genuine joy out of "proving" to us all how much we don't work; on the other hand, there are those who treat us as if we're a "cause" and not a profession. You know I saw a red ribbon magnet with an apple and "support teachers" on a minivan last week? Seriously. wtf?

Your call to get the minds of legislators changed is good because they, after all, hold the purse strings. But the rest of the public -- the "my taxes pay your salary" crowd -- might be even more important. For instance, while I teach in a place where the school budget is determined by the board of ed and the county board, I grew up in a school district where the school budget is decided by a direct vote.

And then you have the fact that you're not only marketing yourself to the public, but to your students. After all, you are trying to get to embrace the material you're using and knowledge you're trying to impart, even if it's not your favorite thing either (case in point: I have to teach Wuthering Heights this year -- GAG!).

I think a lot of your points are good, and I've made a lot of them myself -- although I think that you shouldn't be so hard on us for complaining about our jobs. Yes, there is a martyr complex in our profession, BUT the way that we can establish cameraderie with people in other sectors, whether it be the corporate world or service sector is by bitching about our jobs.

The key is not to act as if just because we're teachers, we've got it worse than anyone else. I spent my first six years out of college in various corporate jobs and I can compare every pain in the ass I've encountered in the classroom--student, administrator, parent, or fellow teacher--to anyone I had to work with or deal with in my prior career. Some things are universal and in a weird way, embracing that will help and not hurt.

Then again, I just got back from a week's vacation, so what do I know?

Natalie Schwartz said...

Misconceptions about the teaching profession are pervasive in our society. Many people mistakenly believe teachers have low-pressure jobs and work until three o’clock. My father and sister are both teachers, and I know teachers work long hours, endure stress and anxiety, and overcome a multitude of challenges every day to mentor, guide and educate our nation’s children. I wrote my book, “The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society,” to dispel the misconceptions about teachers and convey the major contribution they make to our society. One of the biggest challenges teachers face is developing constructive relationships with the parents of their students. Since the book was released last year, I’ve been conducting workshops for parents to help them develop successful partnerships with their children’s teachers. (I also conduct workshops for teachers.) Children benefit the most when parents and teacher work together as partners.

I’m concerned that the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program will perpetuate the notion that teachers should be held solely accountable for a student’s poor performance on academic assessment tests. A child’s education is a collaborative process that requires the commitment of the parent, teacher and child. I expressed my concerns about the “Race to the Top” program in my blog entry last week at

Teachers are entrusted with the vital task of educating the future leaders of America. To be successful, they need cooperation from parents, support from political leaders, and respect and gratitude from all of us.

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