Sunday, February 23, 2014

Time for School Leaders to See Teaching as 21st Century Profession, Not Assembly-Line Work

School leaders and policymakers have a serious misperception about the role and job of teaching that undermines teaching as a profession and perpetuates the view that the role of teaching is akin to being an assembly-line worker. It is no wonder American politicians, policymakers and corporate reformers have bought wholeheartedly into the idea of value-added teacher evaluations. When you hold a deep-seated view that a teacher’s job is simply to “add value” in the form of knowledge as students roll through the classroom assembly line, then the perception is that the “physical act of imparting knowledge"---or teaching in this view---is just about being physically in front of students and nothing else.

Americans have long held the belief that teachers aren't doing their jobs unless they are in front of kids. Planning periods and professional development as well as tasks like grading papers are never calculated into the teacher workday, and that demonstrates fully that the American education system stubbornly holds on to a dated and ancient view of both what exactly is the act of teaching. In short, we just can’t give up the view that teachers should only be paid for the actual time they are in front of kids. We then expect them to spend hours in the afternoon-evenings and on weekends grading papers, lesson planning and attending to their professional development.

It’s time for school administrators and policymakers to remember that good teaching starts with all those things teachers do outside of the classroom too. It’s too bad we can’t let go of this factory model view of teachers and start to discuss some real 21st century solutions that will allow teachers to increase their professional capacity by restructuring both the time and amount of time teachers spend in front of students. After all, are our teachers babysitters for parents while they work, or are they professionals who are actually engaged in one of the noblest of professions?

In his book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, Pasi Sahlberg writes:
“In lower-secondary schools, on average, Finnish teachers teach about 600 hours annually (i.e., 800 lessons of 45 minutes each). This corresponds to four teaching lessons daily. According to the OECD, in the United States the average annual total teaching time in lower-secondary grades is 1,080 hours, which, in turn, equals six or more daily lessons or other forms of instruction of 50 minutes each.”
In other words, the Finnish education system sees teaching much more broadly than we in America do.  They see those activities---professional development, tutoring, grading student work, providing remediation---as much a part of “teaching” as being in front of the classroom. For years, American education has expected teachers to do these things on their own time, even with paltry efforts to provide planning period time during the school day.

If we wanted to do one thing that would have the greatest impact on teaching and student learning, perhaps we need to more broadly define “teaching” as the Finns do. For example, we might:
  • Consider teacher planning times as sacred and not fill them up with mundane and mandated meetings. Allow teachers to use that time for planning, grading, and even re-mediating students.
  • Rethink our views of “teaching” to include all the things effective teachers do---planning, creating new learning activities, grading/providing feedback, tutoring, professional development. We really do need to stop thinking of teachers as only doing their job when they’re in front of kids.
  • Hold professional development during the regular workday rather than expect teachers to sit in the afternoons after spending all day teaching. I still remember how scattered and tired my mind was at the end of the day was after facing multiple classrooms full of students. Professional development need to be melded to the act of teaching. It should be included as part of the workday.
  • Look at how we can restructure our school days to allow for more time to do all the things required to be a good teacher instead of expecting that teachers do these things on their time, at home or after school. It’s no wonder teachers burn out and tire of the profession. How many other professions are expected to work without pay? We need to create schedules that allow teachers to devote time to all the tasks of teaching.
We Americans, especially school leaders, politicians, and policymakers have a mistaken perception of what should be included in the act of “teaching” when it comes to how we structure compensation and what teachers do day-to-day. We like to boast about 21st century schooling and teaching, while at the same time we hold on stubbornly to a 20th century perception of the teaching profession. Maybe it’s time we let that go. We need to redefine teaching broadly in how we manage our schools and include time for teachers to do all that teachers do in their school day.


  1. Great tips for educational leaders and administrators. In our school, we intentionally make sure meetings and staff development are meaningful and instructional--I can honestly say we don't waste time in these meetings. That's rare in education or any field! This makes a big difference because we know we're going to learn something.

  2. Your post adds another dimension to the ongoing dialogue about how our model of schooling doesn't seem to fit our current world. I wonder how we can envision our schools and look at organization of the day and grouping of students that honours teachers' professionalism, provides accountability, takes account of fiscal restraints and meets student learning need. A tall order! One worth investigating.