Trending in 2020: Recognizing Teacher Professionalism and Expertise in Trying Times

Almost daily, it seems, our social media platforms blow up with yet another story about why teachers are leaving the profession. We read reports by think tanks and policy centers, personal narratives from discouraged teachers—both new and veteran—and calls for change from professional organizations. Teachers are leaving in record numbers for many reasons, these sources tell us, but prime among them is this: Once respected as professionals, many teachers now feel as if their voices have been silenced—that their education, experience, and diligent commitment to students no longer have a place in the conversations about education. Standardized tests lead to standardized curricula and standardized teaching practices in far too many places. They create “teacher proof” approaches that ignore teacher creativity and contradict research based practices.

            As former high school teachers and now teacher educators, we work with a lot of teachers. We hear their despair and we worry about their futures in this profession they have chosen and that they love. At the same time that we may fret, though, we’re intrigued by the committed professionalism we see among so many teachers:

  • Given the number of teachers who are leaving, what is it that keeps them in education?
  • Given the focus on mandated curriculum, why do they keep going to conferences and participating in twitter chats and reading professional books and creating professional learning experiences for themselves (different from the mandated versions of this in so many of their schools and school districts)?
  • Given an environment that diminishes their ability to make decisions about classroom practices, what makes them continuous learners, trying new and research-supported ways of teaching in their classroom; reflecting on why something worked and how to rethink something that didn’t?
  • And—most of all—how do they do this in the face of structures seemingly designed to erase them as professionals?

            We see teachers exerting themselves as professionals every day. Cathy has helped facilitate a group of teacher researchers for over 20 years in which teachers meet monthly outside the confines of their schools. These teachers share their deepest wonderings about teaching, conduct research in their own classrooms, bring data back to the group to reflect upon together, share resources, and make changes in their teaching as a result of their own and their colleagues’ work. These teachers don’t do it for graduate credit; they don’t do it for an increase in pay; they don’t do it to impress their administrators. They do it, they proclaim, for the shared experience, for the opportunity to talk with other teachers who share their values and commitment, and to get support from other experts in their profession—their colleague teachers.

Similarly, in recent work in collaboration with Nicole Mirra, Antero has engaged in ongoing participatory research with teachers and students from across the country. The Digital Democratic Dialogue (3D) study began as an initial focus on how teachers can support the complex civic dialogue that feels so distant from what teachers often feel comfortable engaging in under the political circumstances in the U.S. today. However, while our analysis of nearly two years of participation across the country emphasizes powerful lessons about civic learning, there is an equally powerful lesson that the 3D study helps illuminate about teachers today. Supported teachers, with caring colleagues and resources, thrive. Just as Cathy noted above, these teachers engage with one another for the love of the profession, for the thrill of intellectualism, and for the very simple fact that this study is guided by their expertise.

It’s About Respect

            What does this tell us?  We think it’s this:  When teachers are treated as professionals, when they are treated as the experts they are, they can help shift the conversations about teaching and learning. To that point, the National Council of Teachers of English is considering a resolution that seeks to name and honor teacher expertise, defining teacher experts as “teachers who make a commitment to intentional professional growth that is sustained over time and years of practice.” This resolution, created by the NCTE Resolutions Committee at the 2019 NCTE Annual Convention and passed at the 2019 Annual Business Meeting, is now awaiting approval by NCTE membership.

            The resolution further names teacher experts as those who:

  • Continually hone the art and craft of teaching by studying their own practice
  • Engage in teaching that responds effectively to particular moments in the context of their classrooms and work with students
  • Foster authentic, equitable, and caring relationships with students, their families, and the communities in which they teach
  • Seek leadership opportunities and professional learning within their schools and elsewhere, while remaining active classroom teachers

            It says a lot about where we are in terms of U.S. public education when a professional organization like NCTE must take the necessary stand of recognizing teacher expertise through a resolution like this. As we look to the work we do with teachers on a day-to-day basis, we recognize that we must act along two seemingly divergent lines:

  1. We must speak loudly of the importance for valuing teachers as experts and professionals; this must be a crucial and explicitly taught component in teacher education programs.
  2. We must also make the ways we value these teachers’ burgeoning judgments implicit and part of the invisible infrastructure of what teachers naturally do.

As we are just now entering the third decade of the 21st century, we hold hope for powerful shifts in the landscape of teacher accountability and evaluation. These are trying times for public educators, but we continue to hold fast to hope alongside the passionate teachers we work with and learn from daily.

Cathy Fleischer is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and special imprint editor at NCTE. Antero Garcia is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Their co-authored book, Everyday Advocacy: Teachers Who Change the Literacy Narrative, will be released this November.

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