I’m a teacher because that’s my passion and calling in life. I also hold a demanding second job that enables me to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
On a recent duty weekend, I had a conversation with a leader about teacher pay. He insisted that I could just work my contract hours at school and then my hourly wage would be quite good. My response: Not if I want to be a good teacher.
All students deserve high-quality, effective teachers. Here’s what that looks like for me: After my first three years mastering classroom basics, I worked through the board certification process and completed a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction to improve my practice. Every summer I take at least one week for additional professional development, and I usually pay for it out of pocket.
I also feel obligated to be part of the solutions to systemic issues in education. I saw problems in the mentoring program at my school, so I applied to be a mentor and reorganized the program. I also applied to be a part of the inaugural group of Utah Teacher Fellows to raise teacher voices in education policy conversations. I love these extra duties, but they can be exhausting.
The Utah Board of Education asked the Utah Teacher Fellows to research teacher effectiveness and leadership in fall 2017. Let me share some of the results: Teachers feel valued when they are recognized and respected. Teachers feel the most important characteristics of effective teachers are soft skills like relationship-building, not easily quantified in our evaluation systems. Finally, teachers use personal time and resources for teacher leadership, but effective teacher leadership requires dedicated time — protected for planning, for mentoring, for collaboration.
Teacher leadership roles in Utah education right now are limited and usually poorly designed. Most mentoring, teaming, committee work and professional learning happens after hours. The additional burdens of leadership are an honor, but they don’t pay the bills. Given this reality, it’s little surprise that many teachers don’t think more of the same type of teacher leadership opportunities will improve teaching, learning or teacher retention. There is a better way.
Imagine the impact of empowered teacher leaders — expert classroom teachers filling additional leadership roles in support of local school needs during the day. These could be hybrid positions where teachers both teach and have dedicated time to mentor new teachers, to peer coach experienced teachers or to analyze school data. Administrators don’t have time to do it all, and their roles are evaluative, so new and struggling teachers are hesitant to ask for support.
Principals could identify local needs working with their school leadership teams and craft positions to meet those needs. These positions could be adjusted periodically as needs change. Teachers would have growth opportunities beyond the classroom if they wanted authentic leadership roles, and all teachers could benefit from improved in-school supports. Retention would improve. More highly effective teachers would stay in classrooms teaching our children.
Master teachers serving in tailored teacher-leader roles are part of the school-level solution for improving teacher quality and retention. We can either accept mediocre performance because we’re happy with what we currently pay for, or we can fund this systemic change to empower master teachers to lead us to a better way of meeting our students’ needs locally. As new funds flow into schools because of the Our Schools Now legislative compromise, schools and districts should look at in-school teacher leader models to promote effective teaching and better support student growth and learning.
Deborah Gatrell is a board certified teacher working to elevate teacher voice in education policy discussions as a Utah Teacher Fellow. Follow Deborah on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1 and the Fellows @HSG_UT. You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to continue the conversation.