I remember how I felt my first year of teaching: isolated, weary, surprisingly unprepared for the challenges of classroom teaching. I was only mildly comforted to discover that nearly all new teachers have both positive and challenging experiences. Teachers who stay in the profession (for more than five years) typically have a similar story of frustration or surprise and this is especially true for new teachers with innovative spirits. Through my years as an educator, I’ve found that such experiences can be attributed to a misunderstood education system.
Imagine an aspiring, innovative college student, excited to experience a new campus, engage with peers, and conference with professors. Her final semesters are spent in at least one master teacher’s classroom, experiencing the effects of her knowledge in practice. She puts faith in this system and receives a credential certifying her knowledge. With transcripts in hand, she is offered an opportunity to inspire students with her innovative spirit and knowledge of classroom teaching.
Now imagine, within the first few months in their classroom, the spirit of this new teacher is tested and, within the first few years, her resilience and perspective remolded by a system not designed for what the innovative young mind had planned. Meanwhile, a colleague of hers seems to have finally reached his stride, finding measured success in teaching by the proverbial book and expressing the same general concerns over student academic and behavior challenges as his fellow teachers.
I have seen my fellow university credential candidates find other professions after going through the hiring process or experiencing their first years of teaching. In schools where I’ve taught, I’ve seen new teachers come and go for a variety of reasons, all of which are related to the system of education and its impact on their lives. I know teachers today who proudly declare that their experience with education, though challenging, is no more challenging than any other profession. I know just as many other teachers who continue to push through the weariness and isolation, continuing to work within a system that weighs down on their innovative spirit.
It is not difficult to cherry-pick data that corroborates for or against the education system:
|Data against problems with the system: “…the percentage of teachers with 10 to 20 years of experience increased from 29 to 39 percent during this period… [and] among public school teachers with 1–3 years of experience, 80 percent stayed in their base-year school, 13 percent moved to another school, and 7 percent left teaching in 2012–13” (source).
|Data for having concern with the system: “In 1987-88, there were about 65,000 first-year public school teachers; by 2015-16, there were about 191,000 first-year public school teachers… [and recently confirmed] more than 44 percent of new teachers in public and private schools leave teaching within 5 years of entry” (source).
Whatever your personal experience may be, the national data gives a birds-eye view of the fact that people are simply not choosing to make a career out of classroom teaching—especially those with an innovative spirit.
My own experience has been that leadership teams with high levels of interest in concepts designed to improve the status quo, such as Standards-Based Grading (SBG) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), find challenges not with the concepts themselves so much as how the concepts can be adopted into their current system. However, schools must see the system of education as an interconnected series of mechanisms where any effort to improve one part of a mechanism will naturally have an impact on other related and important mechanisms.
Now imagine that same school adopting into classrooms SEL concepts without adapting other mechanisms, choosing not to implement reform to how teachers are trained, how staff is supported, how budgets are allocated, how parents are provided support, and how HR handles new conflicts, just to name a few. Adopting SEL into classroom instruction can easily be seen as a failure when only that one mechanism of classroom instruction and management is being addressed.For example, imagine a school acknowledging that adopting SEL into classroom instruction can improve teacher retention by addressing student social and emotional health, thus reducing school-wide suspension rates and improving in-class student behaviors. This is becoming more common. As a 2018 report from the Learning Policy Institute claims, states are encouraging school districts to “replace zero-tolerance strategies with effective SEL programs and approaches such as restorative justice.”
Individual mechanisms, such as the hiring and retention of new teachers, must not be seen as requiring isolated solutions. Simple didactic cause-and-effect solutions of one mechanism fixing another ignores the need for conceptual changes to the system’s infrastructure. Attempting to lower (or “fix”) suspension rates and in-class behaviors by adopting an SEL program, hoping to improve teacher retention as a result, does not address the impact of SEL on other related mechanisms throughout the system, and will likely result in continued failure to improve the system.
If we are going to take systemic improvements to the education system seriously, we must recognize conceptual ideas such as SBG and SEL as the solutions they are meant to be—systematic replacement of structural elements within a vast, complicated, interconnected system.
The data supporting the need for this shift has taken years to collect. Collecting the evidence to prove these shifts are working will also take years to collect. Schools and districts have already begun shifting their own systems and leaders in universities and organizations across the country are proving the value of SBG and SEL as needed shifts to the education system.
However, we must not view them as simply tools to fix the system; instead, we must see them as conceptual shifts in how the system of education must be wholly redesigned. We cannot expect these changes to happen overnight. Serious consideration for a core redesign of the system must be explored; and if not by us, the educators in the system, then by whom?
And if not now, when?