Pretty often someone asks me why I left the K-12 classroom. Since I am someone who works pretty hard to recruit talented young people into the teaching profession I think that's a fair question. It is no secret that there is a critical shortage of teachers of color, particularly male teachers of color. So why have I chosen to spend my career in the academy instead of in schools where I can have a more direct impact on students?
Let me start by saying that I in no way profess to have been God's gift to the profession; but I do think I was a pretty effective teacher by the time I left K-12 teaching. You might notice that I said by the time I left teaching. That's because I didn't have a clue what I was doing when I started. I owe my growth in teaching to fabulous mentors who spent a lot of time with me during my first few years; four very special ladies in particular: Tina Baptiste (New Orleans Public Schools), and Rhonda Voiselle, Tanya Bourgeois, and Erin Raiford (St. Charles Parish Public Schools). With their help, I can comfortably say that I got to the point where I was impacting student learning in significant ways.
But what I also learned beginning in my very first year of teaching, was how broken systems and failed education and social policy can create conditions in schools that even the most talented teachers cannot overcome. A teachers is unequivocally the most influential school-level determinant in a child's academic success, and teachers impact the lives of their students in extraordinary ways; but it is very hard to fix broken system and influence policy from the classroom. Most effective teachers that I have known spend well over 40 hours a week on their planning, instruction, and assessment. So while I loved my job as a middle school and high school teacher, I realized pretty early on that I wanted to work to change systems and influence policy. That's why I returned to graduate school to earn a PhD, and why I took a faculty position at a research university.
I see my job now as preparing high quality teachers and leaders for schools, and working to change policy to create conditions where teachers in our most challenging schools and districts have a much better shot at impacting student learning in significant ways. That's what I try to do everyday here at the University of Kentucky, and I want all of you to hold me accountable to that.
As we begin another school year, one of the educational leadership and policy areas that I hope we can begin to make some progress on is creating career-ladders for teachers. There is consensus in the research literature that the classroom teacher is THE most important school-level factor for impacting student learning. Leadership is extremely important, but the relationship between leadership and student learning is an indirect one. Classroom teachers' impact on student learning is direct and it cannot be overstated.
With that said, one of the issues that we face in education is keeping highly effective teachers in classrooms. This is difficult for a variety of reasons, including community variables, income, working conditions, etc. Attracting high quality teachers into teaching is a challenge, and keeping them there can pose a challenge as well. It is no secret that a significant number of our teachers leave the profession completely. Neither is it a secret that some of our most capably teachers are attracted to higher-paying, higher-status positions in administration. As I said previously and as you will hear me say over and over again, our schools need good leaders; but possibly even more important, our schools need really good teachers in classrooms.
Educational leaders and policymakers will have to begin to wrap their heads around possibilites for building career ladders for our most capable teachers that do not take them out of classrooms completely. A highly effective teacher should not feel like he or she has to move out of the classroom to move up the career ladder in education. As it currently stands in many school districts, a first year teacher has the same job description, responsibilities, and expectations as a 20-year veteran master teacher. The emphasis in some of our states and districts on the development of teacher leaders gets at some of the policy possibilities for teacher career-ladders, but I believe that at this point we are only scratching the surface. It's time to move this conversation forward.
The importance of effective school leadership cannot be overstated. For many years research has consistently pointed to the classroom teacher as having the most significant impact of all school-level agents on a student’s learning. Understanding that, one of the key roles of the principal is to ensure that the school is a place that supports teachers in ensuring student learning. That responsibility entails many things, all of which are detailed in the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium’s (ISLLC) standards for school leadership. These standards calls on school leaders to promote the success of all students through the development and implementation of a school vision, creating and sustaining a school culture that is conducive to learning, effectively managing school operations, collaborating with internal and external school stakeholders, leading with integrity, and advocating for and acting on behalf of children within the larger state, national, and international education contexts.
District and state leaders must make a top priority of getting a highly effective principal into every school. There is no substitute for effective school-level leadership. Once that effective leader is in place, s/he must be given the authority to make real decisions. I find it unfortunate that in some places we have dramatically increased the level of accountability for school leaders, but we have restricted their discretion to the point where very little of what goes on in the school is under their control. Principals in too many of our schools are no more than middle-managers, carrying out orders from district administrators. We must continue to hold school leaders accountable for the success of their schools, but in turn, we must give them the authority to make real decisions in their schools.
We must attract, select, and retain highly skilled, passionate leaders in schools that are committed to creating inclusive and nurturing environments and improving learning for all children. Giving these leaders the authority they need to do their jobs would result in schools meeting and surpassing expectations. Throughout my career I have worked with many incredibly intelligent, passionate, and creative school leaders, and I know that we have the human resources to turn some of our poorest performing schools into exemplary communities of learning. We can start by eliminating outdated policies and practices that prevent school leaders from doing their jobs. That type of policy reform is an important step toward providing all of our children with a first-rate education.