By Patricia A. Jennings
Our school systems are completely outmoded and becoming so dysfunctional that students and school staff are being stretched to the breaking point. Teacher dissatisfaction is at an all-time high, discipline problems are rampant, and school staff are being subject to more aggressive and even violent outbursts from both students and parents. In my view, these are all symptoms of the intense pressures that our outdated education system places on students, teachers, and families—especially as this system struggles to return to its status quo following the Covid pandemic. Meanwhile, teachers are burned out and quitting in droves as the teacher shortage crisis deepens. How can we turn this around? First, we need to examine our education system itself.
Turning Around an Outmoded System
Our school systems were developed during the industrial revolution, when rapid social changes brought masses of people into growing cities. At the time, we knew very little about the science of learning, and so we relied on the modern factory model to create a simple, standardized, and linear education system. Based on this model, schools were designed to teach very basic skills to a relatively homogenous population, and this system worked for a time. However, as the rate of social change accelerated and our population became more diverse, it became clear that the factory model of schooling was no longer serving its purpose. Over the past fifty years, a string of reforms have been initiated in an unsuccessful effort to bring this archaic system into the post-modern world. Many of them, such as the 1996 Class Size Reduction (CSR) program for grades K-3 in California, failed because they were minor nudges or small experimental projects that did little to change the overall system.
Over this same time period, advancements in neuroscience and developmental psychology have shown us that learning is a very complex system. It is most effective when learners have autonomy to direct their own learning within an environment that is warm and supportive, but also challenging and engaging.
As teachers, we have watched decision-makers implement one new program after another, without adequate support or time to give it an opportunity to work, and then move on to something new. Rarely, if ever, are teachers included in these decision-making processes. This is surprising, given that we spend more time with young learners than anyone—in some cases, even more than parents—and are thus best positioned to see how our systems need to change for the benefit of students’ learning. The current crisis offers us leverage to make those changes from the bottom up. But first, we need to change the way we think about school and jettison the mindsets that have trapped our profession in a kind of learned helplessness.
Teachers Need to Recognize Their Own Value
The factory model school system was built on the backs of a predominately female workforce during an era when just being able to work was a rare opportunity for women. System builders saw that they could pay women a third of what men were paid, and they believed women would be more compliant to male-dominated leadership. Though much has changed over a century and a half, the teaching profession has remained a notoriously low-paying career, despite its high demands and many required skill sets. And now, at a time when there’s a growing labor shortage, teaching is less attractive than ever. This shortage has provided teachers with an opportunity to demand changes in this system. We need to recognize that we have this power, and examine how best to use it.
What Steps Can Teachers Take to Implement Change?
When a huge system like a school district is stressed to its limits, change becomes mandatory. As teachers, we can use our collective efficacy to examine the challenges that are presented at both the school and district levels, and insist on changes that will make our jobs easier. We can apply design thinking to make changes such as modifying the way time is allocated in our schools and providing more time for deep learning that will reduce our stress while also improving student learning.
We can take the lead in elevating our professionalism by promoting teacher leader model standards and demanding more time and support for planning and professional learning, making it clear that we will no longer sit on the sidelines while others make policies that often interfere with our teaching and our students’ learning. Teachers have been underappreciated for too long; it’s time for us to be recognized as the skilled, knowledgeable professionals that we are.
Finally, we can empower our students to direct their own learning. During the pandemic, students had opportunities to be more independent learners, and it’s clear that they don’t want to go back to a system where they were often viewed as passive consumers rather than engaged learners. When our students know how to learn effectively and can pursue their own inquiries and interests, our roles become so much effective: we can direct them to resources and provide guidance, rather than trying to force them to learn irrelevant content that seems meaningless to them. Implementing independent learning in our own classrooms is an important step towards systemwide change.
Our schools are in crisis, but with crisis there is always hope. Teachers represent a significant percentage of the U.S. workforce, and perform what is arguably one of the most important jobs in the country (and world!). If we embrace our own value as highly skilled and needed professionals, we can be drivers for systemwide change.
Patricia A. Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, is one of “Ten Mindfulness Researchers You Should Know,” according to Mindful magazine. She is the editor of Norton Books in Education’s Social and Emotional Learning Solutions series and author of the best-selling Mindfulness for Teachers, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, Mindfulness in the Pre-K –5 Classroom, and Teacher Burnout Turnaround.