Reflections on the teaching profession and the potential for leadership

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with #MichED-ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller) to discuss (among other things) the teaching profession along with it’s potential for leadership and advancement.

I’ve learned a ton this year in my new role at Ingham, and that work has helped me become knowledgeable in maybe a dozen districts, in addition to the four I’ve been involved with already in my career. I’m starting to get a sense that there are some patterns to the teaching profession that aren’t specific to a single district. Sitting with Jeremy and Melody for a 90-minute discussion brings the knowledge of the experience of scores of other educators in districts all over the state. After that conversation, it seems there are definitely patterns.

1. There are very, very few distinctions that separate rookies from veterans. The job of someone with 50 clock hours of classroom experience is remarkably similar to the job of someone with 50,000. The expectations are the same. The workloads are the same. The evaluations are the same. The professional development is the same.

2. There are remarkably few advancement opportunities within the field of teaching. Don’t confuse this with the education industry as a whole. There are lots of career pathways within education. But if someone is an exemplary talent in teaching (Every field has its hall-of-famers. Teaching is no different…), the field doesn’t offer much in the way of advancing in the field WITHOUT having to leave the classroom. Which is a little risky because…

3. … teachers trust the advice of teacher far above and beyond the advice of non-teachers. This is why #MichED and it’s motivated leadership have done such important work. Teachers need to be connected to other teachers. The masters of this craft need to be able to share their work with others. They need to be able to advertise their expertise. Which used to be difficult because the technology didn’t allow for it. Not so much anymore.

Flexibility holds the key to the solution to a lot of these problems. I have a series of what-ifs…

1. What if each leadership position in a school district included a teaching component? The superintendent, the directors of curriculum, technology, grounds, special education, athletics, the building principals and assistants all could teach one hour per day. Anyone who is certified to teach will. This would have several positives.

First, it would keep all the decisions very close to the classroom (and that means close to the students who should ALWAYS be the main focus.)

Second, it would force collaboration because a full-time job like curriculum director needs full-time attention, but with the director also being a part-time teacher, then those decisions would all get made in committee with the curriculum director as the chair.

Third, it not only frees up hours for teacher fluidity, but also opens up committee positions to build in leadership capacity among the teaching staff. Now, we are expecting exemplary, veteran teachers to contribute to district-wide decisions. And that would be built into the day. This wouldn’t be after-school work that endlessly interferes with their down time. When the curriculum leadership team needs to meet, the building principal can cover for the teacher in that building that needs to be out. After all, they teach too.

Fourth, it would make decisions coming down from the central office more likely to be accepted by the teaching staff (which can be a contentious issue in schools.)

2. What if we increase teacher “fluidity”? I don’t think we take advantage of our teachers who can teach multiple subjects nearly well enough. Having a teacher that is able to teach any math class and any science class from grades 6-12 is not an uncommon skill set. Having the finance director coming to your school every day to teach a math class not only frees up that math teacher for an hour, but imagine if that math teacher (who can also teach science) is now free-lance. This isn’t necessarily an additional prep hour, this is an hour when that teacher can step into another teacher’s classroom. Perhaps because they have a cool cross-curricular project they want to have their students experience. Perhaps that teacher is going to cover for a colleague who is at a conference or professional learning activity. How about all of these benefits?

First, curriculum would need to be coherent, clear, and consistent. That math teacher wouldn’t be coming into the science teacher’s classroom to be a place-holder. She is teaching that class that hour. That means she needs to be able to step into the flow of the unit.

Second, how much better of an understanding would teachers have of each other’s practice, classroom experiences, struggles, and strengths? Imagine if a teacher whose classes are regularly rowdy and difficult to control goes into their colleague’s classroom and sees those same kids quiet, focused, and attentive? There’d be some powerful observation and discussion happening.

Finally, this flexibility would allow for my third “What-if…”

3. What if we completely rethought new teacher mentorship? I get so discouraged when I hear of the lousy workloads and complete lack of support that new teachers receive. I’ve seen fresh-out-of-college teachers given 4 and 5 brand new preps with daily travel between buildings without full-time pay. I’ve seen new teachers (when they should still be working on their classroom management and assessment/feedback of student work) asked to build new classes into the curriculum because the rest of the veterans in the department wanted it done and didn’t want to do it themselves. I’ve asked brand new teachers “who is your mentor?” in December of their first school year and watched them not know the answer.

This is madness. At some point, we have to stop allowing veterans to look at new teachers the way seniors look at freshman.

In combination with my other two What-Ifs, we can completely overhaul the idea of teacher development around a few premises.

1. New teachers teach a full-day no more than two days a week their first semester in the classroom.

2. New teachers co-teach a lesson with their mentor (either in the new teacher’s classroom or in the mentor’s) at least two hours per week for the first semester. One hour a week for the second semester. Two hours per month for the second year.

3. New teachers and mentors have built into their schedules one hour per week of collaboration/discussion/mentorship time.

4. Building leadership will observe new teachers at least two separate half-hours per month.

5. Each department will designate the two most difficult classes to teach well in terms of student behavior and struggle to learn the material. No teacher in the first three school years out of college will be allowed to teach these classes.

These are all things that can be address if we just rethink the idea of leadership and the teaching profession. Everyone in our district who is certified to teach will. This will add opportunities for teachers to grow into leadership roles. This will also create chances for teachers to become active members of the school community in different ways that was previously possible. It will give a better chance for our exemplary teachers to support the improvements of everyone.


Let’s Keep This Simple

Several years ago, for about 18 months, a wave of professional development came through our school that focused on Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures. We got trainings, and books, and flip cards filled with structures with cute little names on them.

And it all seemed very… I don’t know… complicated.

Now, Cooperative Learning is a fantastic model, especially if the contexts are rich enough to make the interactions necessary. However, the Kagan model has changed the game a little bit, and I’m not sure if it is for the better. It seems to me that there are some problems with looking at cooperative learning in this way.

To illustrate, I’ll use an example from my class.

This morning, I knew three things:

1. I needed a good, quick, formative assessment of what my classes knew about right triangle trigonometry and what they didn’t.

2. To get that, I needed to engage them in a variety of simple problem-solving activities.

3. On a Monday morning like this, the last week before spring break, the Monday after the first weekend of March Madness, the first Monday in a while without snow on the ground, the week of the first sporting events of the spring season here in Michigan…

They were NOT going to engage sitting in their seats doing a quiz.

Sitting still wasn't going to work out today.

Sitting still wasn’t going to work out today.

So, I took the different types of situations I wanted, created nine different problems, printed them on sheets of paper and taped them around my room.

The I grouped the students and sent them around the room to solve one problem every 2-4 minutes and then report back what they were confident with, so-so with, and confused about.

I still needed to assess them.

I still needed to assess them.


According to Kagan, I used a Modified Gallery Walk with a possible Rally Coach with a likely Carousel Feedback. It was effective because it followed the PIES framework of Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Equal Participation and Simultaneous Interaction (Kagan, 2009).


So, I taped the problems to the wall one question and a time and sent them around the room.

So, I taped the problems to the wall one question and a time and sent them around the room.


I don’t want to sound like I am making fun of Kagan. I’m not. A ton of R & D went into creating the program, the vocab, and the resources. But, at least in this case, we’ve taken a fairly simple principle of knowing what your class needs and being flexible and WILDLY over-complicated it with a ton of gimmicky-sounding vocabulary.

But teachers need to have a variety activities to use in order to be flexible, right? Without programs like Kagan, where do they go to get them?

How about the expert down the hall?

We as a teaching culture have lost the value of the classroom observation. In the schools I’ve been in, teachers hardly ever get a chance to see each other teach. It could be that this is what has caused the need for books, seminars, and flip-cards. We aren’t letting our teachers share. Seeing what the masters of the craft do when there are 25 real, live students in their room is a whole different experience… a powerful experience… an experience that we are leaving on the table.

I have been mentored by three different teachers. I was NEVER directed by my principal to observe them teach. I have mentored two different teachers. I had to ask special permission, and make all the arrangements in order to observe them or to have them observe me. It shouldn’t be this way.

When we over-complicated things, they become confusing and overwhelming. We’ve been forced into this by not letting our novice teachers watch the master teachers at work. It seems reasonable to assume that the example set by the expert next door will spread good practice a lot farther than the 400-page book that never gets read.