Building a New Teaching Profession in the USA

I recently returned home after spending nearly two weeks in Finland. After meeting with dozens of Finnish education officials, administrators, and teachers, one of several recurrent themes was trust. Finnish educators said repeatedly that trust is a hallmark of their educational system and their relatively recent success on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They talked about trusting a lot of people; education officials trusting school principals, principals trusting teachers, teachers trusting students and parents, etc. But most often the conversations
centered on how much trust the Finnish people have in teachers. As a former teacher and a teacher advocate, that excited me.

The teaching profession in Finland is a bit different from what it is in the USA. In Finland, throughout the nation’s history and even today teachers are regarded as the candles of society, spreading light into the darkness. Teaching is regarded as one of the most honorable and respected professions in the country. Very many of the best and brightest students graduating high school apply to teacher education programs in Finnish universities. Because the profession is regarded in that manner, university teacher education programs are able to choose from among the best and brightest of the best and brightest students entering Finnish universities.

Over the last 10 years I have often had the opportunity to speak to middle and high school students, and I often talk with them about considering careers in teaching. Unfortunately, it is the very rare motivated and highly academically capable student that tells me that they are interested in a career in teaching. It is the current reality in the USA that our teachers have varying ability levels and varying levels of effectiveness. Some of our teachers were the brightest, most capable, and highly motivated students in their high school and university classes. As students, these teachers could have chosen to major in anything. Others had fewer options.

In my current role as a faculty member in a college of education, I have the opportunity to work with some of Kentucky’s strongest educators; professionals who are outstanding in every conceivable way. They are smart, talented, unbelievably hardworking, and passionately committed to their students and to the teaching profession. Unfortunately, however, some of our teachers are not as skilled, committed, or passionate about children or about teaching as the teachers I just described.

The unpleasant truth is that some teachers in American classrooms have landed there because they couldn’t cut it in other majors or professions and teaching was relatively easy to get into and keep a job. Some are in the classroom because teaching has been considered a stable profession. Some teachers are in classrooms because the hours and calendar schedule of the profession are convenient for raising a family. And believe it or not, some teachers are in the profession for the money. You won’t get
rich teaching, but in the right school district with the right credentials and a few years of experience you can make a pretty decent living as a teacher.

What Do I Propose?

I propose building an American teaching profession with individuals who could have chosen lots of different career paths but chose to teach. Doing so would require pretty significant reform and the buy-in and collaboration of some key stakeholders.

First, we would need to acknowledge that the teaching profession in the USA is not quite what we want it to be, and that our current teaching force is not quite what we would like it to be. The teaching profession, including salary structure, career ladders, and professional accountability, would have to be drastically reformed to attract more highly qualified candidates into the profession. Colleges of teacher education would have to begin actively recruiting a diverse array of teacher candidates into the profession, selecting only the highest quality candidates for entry into programs, and holding candidates to extremely high standards; functioning as true gate-keepers to the teaching profession.

Teacher training programs would have to embrace radical reform enabling programs to better equip teacher candidates with the necessary content knowledge, pedagogical expertise, and dispositions for the needs of the diverse group of learners in 21st century American classrooms. To be clear, there are American teacher preparation programs doing just that, but those programs tend to be more the exception than the norm.

Policy makers , school districts, and teacher preparation programs would have to work together to create high-quality pathways for talented professionals to enter the teaching profession as a 2nd career, but with the necessary training and preparation for long-term success once they get there.

Teachers would have to start identifying and encouraging talented students as early as middle school to get them to consider careers in teaching. And teachers unions would have to radically transform themselves into high-quality professional associations that play a major role in both building and refereeing the teaching profession. Professional associations must play a major role in holding their members to the highest standards for professional practice.

By the end of my career I would love nothing more than to
entertain visitors from across the world and tell them that a key to the success of schools in the USA is the trust that we have placed in our teachers. I would love nothing more than to say that the American people have every confidence in American teachers and that the teaching profession is highly respected because we know that our teachers are well-equipped for and passionately committed to preparing our students for successful careers and lives as citizens of the greatest country in the world. It is my hope that we will have the courage to own up to our shortcomings and the will to transform teaching into the profession that it should be in the USA.

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