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New Teachers Must Be Brave Professionals

June 25, 2011

Larry Cuban, Estelle Woodbury, Jennifer Dick, Greg Peters, in discussion at Stanford University, June 22, 2011.

A few days ago at Stanford, I had the opportunity to address, oh so briefly, a crowd that included perhaps a couple hundred teachers and future teachers.  We had just listened to a panel discussion that included current and former teachers, along with Larry Cuban, Stanford professor emeritus and one of the foremost scholars of American public education.  The topic was the nature and status of the teaching profession in America – in particular, the pay and working conditions that drive so many teachers to leave, or consider leaving.

The portion of the audience most on my mind during all of this was the incoming class at the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).  They had just begun graduate school two days earlier, and I can still recall the heady feeling of being in their exact situation when I entered STEP in June of 1994.  I had just moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles, had just settled into a small apartment next to a gas station, and I was on a constant high – not from any gasoline fumes – but from the incredible rush of meeting so many smart and wonderful people, from the feeling of crossing the threshold of a major shift in my life and career.

It was an intense period of significant learning and growth – but about my career choice and my chosen field, there was no sense of doubt that I can recall now.  Sure, I doubted myself, doubted some portion of my work almost every day, when I reflected on my student teaching and recognized all that I needed to improve.  I did not doubt that I had made the right choice, or that schools and teaching would be what I hoped they would be.  I don’t recall any state or national focus on educational issues or controversies.  Yes, there were debates about bilingual education, “whole language” approaches to reading, and in California, the specter of dealing with Proposition 187 which might have put schools in the untenable position of enforcing immigration law (an idea now confronting my colleagues in Alabama).

That was also the year that I created my first email account, first used a web-browser, and learned about something called Yahoo!, which had a searchable index of tens of thousands of web pages!  That was the year that Netscape went public, and O.J. Simpson went on trial.

Now, for these new “STEPpies”, the Class of 2012, the field of education must seem much more tumultuous, and the prospect of entering the profession must seem much more uncertain.  The swirling education debates of our day hardly need a review here, but I wouldn’t want to be trying to navigate those waters while starting off graduate school.

So, we had just heard this panel discussion that seemed to cast more doubt in a situation where I feared it would not serve these individuals well.  Greg Peters, one of the panelists and a former principal at San Francisco’s Leadership High School, later suggested that I was wrong to worry about these students, and needn’t apologize to them for my part in their experience that afternoon; Greg suggested and that people entering our profession must come into it with eyes wide open, familiar with all of the challenges and problems we face – and I do agree with Greg overall.  I guess I just thought Day 3 for these new graduate students might not have been the ideal time to delve into this complex and unsettling reality with an unprepared audience.  For better or worse, I felt protective.

I was mainly speaking to audience about Accomplished California Teachers, our mission, and our interest in promoting teacher leadership for the benefit of the profession, and by extension, the benefit of schools of students.  Though the audience was only partially made up of these soon-to-be teachers, in my few minutes at the microphone, I improvised something like this:

post panel, Stanford 6/22/11

Speaking to teachers and graduate students; Stanford University, 6/22/11

I want to say something to the incoming STEP students in particular.  I feel like we should apologize for springing this on you right now.  There was some grim stuff there.  But you’re going to have to be brave.  We all have to be brave.  Use this experience as your armor, and go in to schools, and ask the hard questions.  Ask why teachers are paying for their own supplies.  Look out for yourself and don’t take on all the extra work you don’t have to.  That just puts you on a path to rapid burnout.  Some people will tell you to keep your head down and go along until you get tenure, but you saw the numbers up here, how many teachers are retiring soon.  Don’t be afraid to speak up.  Don’t just complain either.  Help come up with solutions, and be an excellent teacher.  If you’re doing a great job in the classroom, they’re not going to fire you for questioning the way things are done.  [At this point, I probably should have added some kind of qualifier, like “probably” – and I could have also added that anyone who fires you for speaking up about working conditions is just helping you out of a situation you should leave anyways].

It was not the first time that I’ve advised new teachers to do something that bucks conventional wisdom by establishing a professional identity through speaking out rather than keeping quiet.  I’m trying to take the long view, too, looking at the long-term trend of retiring teachers and insufficient replacements coming in.

What do you think?  Did I go too far?  Or is it reasonable to tell brand new teachers to be brave, perhaps braver than many teachers currently in the field?  What brave actions can we take to improve teaching in your school or district, or in the profession overall?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2011 4:52 pm

    As one who became site rep in her second year as an intern teacher, I strongly believe that teachers need to be an advocate for themselves. We encourage parents to do this for their kids, so we need to do this as well. Is it scary? Absolutely! But nothing worthwhile in life is ever done on an easy path.

  2. June 25, 2011 9:01 pm

    Ten years ago, I wish that I had veteran teachers giving me advice on speaking up and not being afraid to advocate for myself or other teachers (or students). New teachers need that kind of emotional support, so I think you did the right thing in advising them to be brave. So many teachers are afraid to speak up when they see something isn’t right. At my school, many new teachers expressed that they would speak up once they had tenure. Some spoke up as a group (safety in numbers) but were still fearful of retaliation or rejection. I think if veteran teachers share their stories with newer teachers, it will empower them to be less fearful in advocating for themselves. At my own school, I try to encourage new teachers to speak out. I’ve even offered to go with them to speak to an admin about their concerns. In many ways, we teach others how to treat us. My hope is that new teachers will be much braver than I was when I was a new teacher.

    Like you, David, I feel protective of the new teachers coming in. I think the best thing exerienced teachers can do is to be brave themselves and model how to establish a professional identity that conveys an expectation of admins to provide a healthy work environment and show respect, support and teamwork.

    Thanks for your post!

    Kelli Reyes
    @TeacherReality on Twitter

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      June 25, 2011 10:12 pm

      Kelli – thanks for your comment. In the article I wrote about professional identity (linked in the blog post above), I wrote about a colleague named Adam who was always more effective than I was in communicating with our administrators, even when we would say pretty much the same thing in the same words; even once in the same meeting, I recall questioning an idea and being shot down, but when Adam questioned it, the administrator said essentially, “Well, okay, that’s a good point.” In my article I suggested that the cause was my hesitation to speak up earlier in my time at that school. It was a private school, so “tenure” wasn’t an issue, and I don’t think I’d have jeopardized my job by being less cautious. I know that is a realistic fear in some situations, and in others, I think it’s an exaggerated fear. Those of us with more experience (and “tenure”) should, as you suggest, model a reasonable approach, but not a timid one. Honestly, I think our speaking out can be seen as a favor to administrators, giving them the cover, and indeed, the responsibility to follow up on situations with their district supervisors or with school boards. And of course, we need to keep telling our stories outside of the classroom and school as well.

  3. Mike Reno permalink
    June 25, 2011 9:45 pm

    The angst I see in teachers is discouraging. Anyone entering (or considering entering) the profession hears from the verterans how awful it is… how mistreated and unappreciated (and underpaid) teachers are today.

    There is certainly plenty of tough rhetoric today about the teaching profession. But some food for thought: teachers have had — and continue to have — a hand in shaping the dialog, and must share some of the responsibility for the negative tone we unfortunately hear today.

    In a nutshell, aside from superficial platitudes, most educators all but refuse to acknowledge that there are problems with some education practices, and more specifically with some teachers.

    Whenever anyone mentions flaws in public education, teachers circle the wagons, and act as if a criticism of any one of them is an attack against all of them.

    They take it personally, and become so defensive that it is impossible to have a reasonable dialog about how the system might be improved.

    Next time you engage with a “reformer”, ask them if there is a specific teacher they are thinking about when they form there opinions. There almost always is, and it’s almost never you!

    Oddly enough, it is oftentimes the best teachers that jump into the fray to defend the most ineffective teachers, union rules, and classroom practices. While it is an admirable show of unity and solidarity, it tends to make the profession look oblivious to problems.

    Most teachers engaging in discussions about reforms with “outside reformers” are intelligent and passionate…they are exactly the type of teacher we want in front of our children. But that does not describe all teachers. Reformers are trying to figure out how to get rid of the bad ones. The good ones rush to the rescue, and start taking arrows. It’s bizarre.

    I found this blog following a twitter tweet in which a frustrated teacher was lamenting about how the media does not seem to seek teacher input when writing about education reform issues. First, that is simply not true, and might be the exact opposite of reality. But if there were any truth to it, it would be because teachers seem to have a very narrowly focused and predictable opinion to offer: “We’re overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. We are the professionals, we know what we are doing, and if kids aren’t doing better in school, then it’s because of poverty, or underfunded schools, or because we are over-regulated and forces to test too much and too often.”

    Did I miss anything?

    If teachers want to have an impact on the discussion, then they need to start having discussions that are more objective, and take things less personally. Acknowledge that there are bad teachers that need to go, and come up with a way to weed them out.

    Innovate; offer fresh ideas. Arguing that we just need to stick with the status quo is a non-starter.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      June 25, 2011 10:05 pm

      Thanks for the detailed comment, Mike. I think in theory we would get farther in debates and discussion by acknowledging what you and I almost every other teacher will admit about the problem of teachers who are doing a poor job. Perhaps the defensiveness comes from the distrust of the other side in the debate, the perception (right or wrong) that the people typically labeled “ed-reformers” aren’t interested in compromise and adjustment, but only in union-busting, deprofessionalizing, and deligitimizing public schools. We talk can talk about improving teacher evaluation so that ineffective teachers get both more effective support and more effective guidance out of the profession, but are we debating teacher effectiveness with people who want to bring about great teacher effectiveness, or who want to hammer away at teacher ineffectiveness to bolster another agenda? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all “ed-reformers” think this way, but I think that some of them do, and so both sides can quickly jump into lock-down mode and resort to talking points aiming to tear the opponent down rather than find common ground. It’s hard work negotiating and compromising in a time of economic and political upheaval and fiscal scarcity. I guess you’re arguing that’s one more way we need to be brave…

      • Mike Reno permalink
        June 26, 2011 7:39 am

        Yep… Heard’em all before.

        It’s not only a slippery slope, but it’s awfully steep.

        For example, to your point, “aren’t interested in compromise and adjustment, but only in union-busting, deprofessionalizing, and deligitimizing public schools.”, consider this typical attempt at a discussion:

        Mention that ineffective teachers need to be removed. The response is “due process”. Note that the process is so long, cumbersome, and expensive. Conclusion: Unionbuster!

        This one is particularly effective: “or who want to hammer away at teacher ineffectiveness to bolster another agenda?”. How is anyone supposed to refute that, especially when it’s usually not just “another agenda”, but is instead “another HIDDEN agenda”?

        Most reform-minded folks I speak with would love nothing more than to be able to talk candidly with teachers about the problems we see, and look to the teachers for suggestions and improvement.

        ==> Mike
        On twitter: K12reformer

  4. David B. Cohen permalink*
    June 26, 2011 8:28 am

    Mike – I accept that those sincere and open-minded reformers would love to have a candid conversation, and I’ve had some of those candid conversations with “reformers” and with plenty of average folks in my circle of friends, family, and community acquaintances. Do you accept that there are “reformers” out there who do no have our best interests at heart, or whose understanding of schools, teachers, and learning is so stunted that their “reforms” are counterproductive?

    By the way, the ACT report on teacher evaluation (see Publications, above) contains some frank assessments by California teachers, being honest about our own frustrations with ineffective colleagues and ineffective evaluations – plus our suggested solutions based on research and best practices that we reviewed.

    • Mike Reno permalink
      June 26, 2011 10:30 am

      Sure, there are always going to be some whackos that say counterproductive things.

      If people want to point’em out… I’d welcome the opportunity to work with them in rebuttal efforts.

      The important thing to remember is that this is about finding a way to keep public education viable, and educate our children. Most of us that are attempting to influence change are doing so with pure motives, and it’s insulting to suggest otherwise.

    • March 23, 2013 8:33 am

      David, yes, yes. I am on the board if directors for a reform organization here that is very well connected. Last week I presented a resolution to codify some of the major obstacles confronting a school that is forced by the district to restructure. Four simple ideas: communication, information, systemic support and financial support. The board, consisting of politicians, philanthropists, one parent, and me, couldn’t wrap their heads around why teachers would deserve a stipend for doing serious work where experience matters. Someone said, “we don’t want the kind of teacher who is in it for the money,” and this guy makes six figures and is in charge of all kinds of stuff. I know I am being vague, but you get the idea. They fund and run a public schools network. I have to stop here because I am still on this board and still trying to get the resolution through. Well intended? Very likely. Responsive? We’ ll see.

  5. June 26, 2011 9:47 am

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Its a scary time to be entering the profession, especially when so many teachers are outspoken about how and why it is a bad idea to commit to the profession in this current climate of ed reform. Young teacher professionals need to be aware of the reality we are up against but this can be passed onto us in a way that establishes a strong professional identity, like you say, with the capacity to be effective agents of change in our distinctive role. I believe that choosing to commit to the profession right now (by attending a strong professional develop graduate program) is so important due to the fact that most of our peers are joining fast track teacher credential programs and the dominant narrative about the profession demonizes experience and graduate degrees. Entering the profession right now is to take on a distinct role and voice in ed. reform. I think that we need to be outspoken about what this distinct role will require. This conversation is very important and I think the establishment of a strong professional identity will be critical to the success of young teacher professionals finding a way to speak back and find a voice. Thank you for your honesty and for believing that it is not a lost cause. I am not scared of the truth and I am ready to take on the fight for quality education for all. Knowing that I stand on the shoulders of strong leaders and teachers gives me inspiration and motivation to fight on, despite the harsh conditions that exist. We need the support of mentors and experienced teachers now more then ever!

  6. Mary Golden permalink
    June 26, 2011 12:43 pm

    David, I agree that prospective teachers absolutely have to be brave to enter the profession because the fact of the matter is they will work harder than they ever thought possible once they enter that classroom — and that’s before they begin taking on anything extra. They will work hard with students during school hours and they will continue working hard when those students go home for the day. They will reflect, prepare, research, worry, discuss strategies with colleagues, analyze test results to determine what they need to reteach and how they can teach it better, communicate with parents, seek ways to reach struggling and gifted students alike, constantly tweak unit plans to delve deeper into subject matter. During their “summers off” they will cart home all their materials to reorganize, refine, and supplement them. They will buy new books, reread old ones, and attend teacher institutes to pursue their professional development. They will apply for mini-grants to purchase materials for their classrooms. And they will do all this and more without a lot of regard to how much money they are making because, after all, they didn’t get into this profession for the money.

    Yes, you did the right thing to tell them they have to be brave. They are going to have to be brave to push through the exhaustion and keep looking forward.

  7. Vicki Baker permalink
    June 28, 2011 9:59 pm

    David, I loved what you said about not taking on extra work. I once mentored a group of science teachers at a low performing middle school, including three new enthusiastic teachers, who were really great at management and student engagement. But every time I visited, they were doing after school tutoring, or running a club or developing a science fair. I suggested they stop doing so much, but they told me, “these kids need so much here.” The end of this story is no surprise: at an end of the year dinner, all three took me aside separately and told me that they were leaving teaching. They were exhausted. What a shame that the teaching profession lost three good teachers who, given time, could have really made a difference at that school. What that school didn’t need was a revolving door of teachers who didn’t stay long enough to be effective advocates for their students and their profession.

    I don’t advise that new teachers speak up, but not because they might lose their jobs, because if they’re doing a good job, they normally are not in danger (except from budget cuts). I advise new teachers to spend some time sitting back and paying attention. What is the culture of the school? Who is respected? Why? Who do people go to in order to get things done (it’s not always the principal)? What is the most effective forum in which to lodge a complaint? Generally, new teachers who speak up right away are seen as intruders, and it’s hard to get past that first impression.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      June 29, 2011 11:10 pm

      Hello Vicki – sorry for the delay on approving your comment. I saw it the day you posted, tried to approve it via iPhone and failed, and forgot to log on until now. As for the comment itself, I understand your point about new teachers learning the culture of the school, but I keep thinking there must be ways to do both – observe, and speak up. I’m not suggesting any new teacher should go in, guns blazing so-to-speak, and tell everyone what to do and how to professionalize teaching. But if a new teacher finds a need that the school or district won’t fill, I think they should say, “What would it take for us to change that? That kind of support would help my students, and would also help me stay afloat in my teaching.” I think I failed somewhat to make it clearer in this blog post that I’m not suggesting new teachers need to go on the attack, criticizing their peers or leaders or workplaces. But they should ask some hard questions, and speak up about the conditions that limit or support the profession. Maybe I’m imagining a younger teacher in these scenarios, maybe with less on the line, less likely to be supporting a family, more options at this point in life. I have a number of cousins and family friends in college or just recently out of college – only one of whom has, to my knowledge, even considered teaching. They’re young, smart, talented, and without dependents to consider. If they find themselves in a workplace where they could be fired for suggesting that they shouldn’t have to provide classroom supplies, and for declining extra (and often uncompensated) work such as club sponsorships, then I think they’re better off in the long run not teaching in those places, and shame on us for losing them. If enough of us had enough bravery to stick up for what’s right and stick up for each other, those kinds of firings would be rare. If I thought a principal had fired a new teacher for acting like a professional, I hope I’d have the character to challenge the principal’s decision in an appropriate way and stand up for my colleagues and our professional status. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with principals and other leaders who treated teachers as professionals, and who could handle constructive criticism and disagreements with staff as part of the nature of the work we do.


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