The first, competition, is perhaps the most controversial aspect and the easiest to misinterpret.
Teaching is a wonderful career, but it can feel isolating spending one’s day removed from adults and adult
interaction, surrounded only by adolescents — no matter how wonderful those young people may be. If
teachers more consistently witnessed their colleagues in action, saw their skillful work and practice,
they would surely improve their own, creating a rising tide of good instruction that lifts all boats. In
other countries this is common practice; in Japan, for example, it’s called jugyō kenky , or lesson study.
Teachers collectively plan a lesson, watch one teacher implement it, then as a group debrief on what went
well and what could be improved.
American teachers, however, spend more hours per day instructing in the classroom than do many
of their counterparts elsewhere, so it’s difficult if not impossible to effectively institute “instructional
rounds” or lesson study within a normal school day. Creating experimental schools would give researchers, policy makers and educators a way to put lesson study into more consistent practice (which, by the
way, was the idea prompting charter schools).
Competition also applies to teacher hiring. Raising entry barriers for the profession would mean
changing everything from the tests for credentialing teachers to education department curricula to
state licensing. In addition to creating a more able teaching corps, higher standards could raise respect
for the job. Part of the reason medicine and law hold elevated positions in the occupational hierarchy of
our society is that the MCAT, the “boards,” the LSAT and the bar exam are difficult examinations to pass.
Yet such tougher criteria seem unlikely in the face of widespread job vacancies that consistently
remain unfilled. Ultimately, schools need teachers in the room.
One potential remedy for the labor shortage is to raise teacher salaries, which would also make educa-
tion more attractive as a legitimate long-term career rather than vocational steppingstone. We all want
to pursue a higher calling, but we also need to eat.
Recently I overheard a local administrator say, “It’s hard to recruit teachers to come to Marin,
because it’s hard for teachers to live in Marin,” which aptly sums it up. Marin is in a unique position:
schools do pay relatively well here, so our county has become a magnet for teachers across the state. But
since not all California towns and municipalities are equally flush with funds, an across-the-board pay
raise is about as likely as a radical schedule shift to accommodate lesson study.
But most of all, teaching has an image problem — the predicament of being misunderstood.
Movies illustrate it perfectly. Here are just a few: Stand and Deliver (1988), Dead Poets Society
(1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Fast Times at
Ridgemont High (1982), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
(1986), Dazed and Confused (1993), and more
recently, The Great Debaters (2007), Fist Fight
(2017), Coach Carter (2005), and Bad Teacher
(2011). Teachers in these films are portrayed as
either great or awful — inspiration or deadbeat,
saint or slouch, hero or zero.
Marin County has more than 100 schools
employing thousands of teachers. It’s safe to bet a preponderance of them fit neatly within none of
those polarities, yet for some reason our collective understanding hasn’t quite grasped that. Rather
than typecasting teachers into either/or, we would all benefit from seeing them for who they are: human
beings who educate the children of this county so it continues to be the inspirational, progressive, freethinking place we hold dear.
This premise is at the heart of my book, which began as a lonely debate with my car radio and yielded
some ideas for solutions and positive change. I hope as parents and educators we’re able to look beyond
movies and headlines and into the actual classrooms where Marin’s teachers are hard at work. With a
few systemic shifts, some subtle and some large, our local schools can continue to improve, along with
prospects for the well-being and future of our kids. m
If teachers more consistently
witnessed their colleagues in
action, saw their skillful work
and practice, they would surely
improve their own.