I am now well past those initial first few years of teaching, comfortable in my own skin and still learning. Into my tenth year in a classroom, and my 6th year at the International School of Brussels, I have seen colleagues make it through their first five years in the profession. And we all know that myth about teacher improvement: after the first three to five years, there’s not much left.
There is a whole teacher management literature based around the premise that teachers need to be pushed to change. Since I’m well past being a new teacher, this passage about mid-career teachers by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan leapt out at me:
“We focus on the first three years to get teachers going. And then we focus on the people who may sometimes prove difficult at the end. We think we can leave the people in the middle alone. If we leave them alone, though, there’s the danger that things become too easy, that they won’t stretch themselves. And then we’re headed for a worrying end, and instead of quiet ones or disenchanted ones or especially renewed ones, we find ourselves dealing with reprobates — and we created them. We need to focus more on the teachers in the middle and to keep challenging and stretching them.”
While I’d rather not become a reprobate in my later career, I also don’t feel in need of someone to challenge or stretch me. Besides my students, that is. I’m eager to learn from others, and appreciate when my colleagues enter my room in the middle of class to see what’s going on. I want to hear advice, to collaborate on designing better assessments, to re-think my decisions in the classroom.
Let me explain my essential disagreement with Hargreaves and Fullan: drawing on business management models translates into constructing unhelpful teacher management models. As one of the caring professions, teaching involves coming to know and care about the people we serve, and there is a perpetual newness there. We constantly need to adjust to the particular individuals in our care, and as we form relationships, we have a strong internal motivation to improve our practice. We don’t want to ‘do better’ in the abstract, but to do better by those that we care about and educate. In other words, there’s no need to get us to identify with a company brand and mantra so that we internalize targets for growth.
And all too often we are presented with the wrong targets for growth: test scores and evaluations. It’s quite possible that the quantitative culture, combined with a general tendency to blame schools for many social and economic issues, leads to those ‘reprobates’. I wonder if instead of mid-career stretching, many people need continuous career care.
More recent studies on teacher improvement indicate that faulty and narrow models focused on test scores have led to the idea that teachers stop improving after the first few years. Either way, adopting a heavily evaluative approach to teachers is just as toxic as focusing on evaluations of students. Anthony Cody writes,
“Just as a constant stress on test scores undermines student growth, a stress on evaluation undermines teacher growth. It is no wonder that many teachers are rejecting rather than rejoicing at this constant “feedback.” Teacher professional growth is not served well by being embedded in an evaluative framework. It is best served when teachers have significant latitude to chart their own paths as individuals, and as school staffs. Administrators can help lead this process, as can outsiders like the Mills Teacher Scholars. But the real work must be done by teachers, who are intellectually and spiritually engaged with this endeavor. That engagement is not derived from the coercion inherent in the evaluation process. It is unleashed by inspiring leadership – and that comes best from teachers themselves.”
The wisdom of pedagogy is something lived, like the appreciation of a song or insight into another person, not something we can capture in statement, check off in an evaluation, or find on google. The wisdom of pedagogy is about starting from a place of trust and opportunity, something easier said than lived, and it’s what teachers deserve, too.