Teaching is complicated and difficult work, but it seems to me those features of the job often get ignored in the contemporary debates about teacher quality.
"I've never thought harder than when I was a high school teacher," says Susan Moore Johnson, who is now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "If you are teaching a class of 25 to 30 students, who all have different brains, who all have different experiences, who learn in different ways, it's very hard to figure out how to teach in a way that will meet all their needs. The number of decisions that you make in the moment are just astronomical."
Johnson's experience is backed up by research. Brian Rowan, a professor at the University of Michigan, compared teaching to other professions using data from the U.S. Department of Labor. He found that teaching is a highly complex job. When it comes to these skills in particular — dealing with people, dealing with data, using reasoning, and using language — teaching is about as hard as it gets.
And yet, teaching has become a relatively low-status career in the United States. And the average quality of public school teachers has declined over the past half century. It has a lot to do with how career opportunities have changed for women. Until the late 1960s, women "could choose between teaching and nursing, essentially," says Johnson. But now that women can easily pursue careers in other fields, they do. And teaching, with its relatively low pay and often challenging work conditions, is less attractive than it once was.
Johnson and some graduate students interviewed young teachers for a book about how the profession has changed since Johnson started teaching in the '60s. They found that many young people face considerable pressure from their families not to go into teaching. "[Their families] see the choice to become a teacher as a kind of weak decision, when there are so many other opportunities," Johnson says. And, she adds, some of the family members who argued most forcefully against teaching were themselves teachers.
This is a big concern for Johnson and other education experts. They say the United States needs more great teachers, but it's difficult to recruit the best and brightest people to a profession that is held in such low regard. Research that compares school systems around the world shows that the cultural status of teachers seems to have impact on how well students perform (How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top). In nations with the best school systems, like Singapore and South Korea, teaching is a high-status position. Only the top college graduates make it into teacher training programs. Teachers in those countries are also better paid, get superior training and more support on the job.
There is some evidence that the status of teaching in the United States may be changing, aided by high-profile programs like Teach for America that recruit top college graduates to poor city schools. In 2010, 12 percent of all seniors at Ivy League schools applied to Teach for America. And while the young people hired by Teach for America annually represents less than two percent of the total teacher workforce, researchers say the selectivity of the program may be having a positive spillover effect on the profession's prestige.
And something I wondered about as I reported this story is how the current debate about teacher quality is affecting perceptions of teaching. Will all this talk about the importance of teachers inspire a new generation of young people to go into the field? Or will it scare them away?
Several young people who want to be teachers told me they were motivated by magazine articles about the importance of teachers.
But others already in the trenches expressed frustration about the way teachers are being written and talked about. They feel like they're being blamed. "There's a lot on the teacher," said Jen Spelkoman, a first year teacher at a Washington, D.C. middle school. "I get that the teacher is with the kids the most. There should be a lot on the teacher. But sometimes it seems there is this kind of push-off, like so much — it's on you, it's on you."
It seems to me one reason teachers feel like they're being blamed is because there's a lot of emphasis on the problem of bad teachers in the debates today, and not enough discussion about how hard teaching is, and what it takes for teachers to become good.
There are clearly reasons for focusing on the problem of bad teaching. Schools do a poor job identifying who the ineffective teachers are and getting rid of them. And bad teachers have a big impact on kids. Research shows students who get ineffective teachers fall behind, and continue to lag behind, even years later.
But most experts agree the majority of teachers are not bad. "There's always the story about the one who's reading the paper during class," says Heather Hill, a Harvard professor who studies teaching. "But that seems to me like an anomaly. I think with most teachers there really is a tremendous amount of will." They'd like to get better, she says, but they don't always know how.
The nation's teacher education programs are not preparing teachers adequately, according to Arthur Levine, the former president of Teacher's College at Columbia University. And many experts — and teachers — say teachers do not get good training or support on the job either.
"I feel for teachers that want to be effective," says Melanie Agnew, a teacher who trains other teachers as part of a new professional development program in Washington, D.C., home to some of the nation's toughest public schools where officials say there was not good professional development for years. "People don't become teachers because they want to do harm," Agnew says. "People don't become doctors because they want to do harm. But if the only medical experience that you have early in your career is in triage and a disaster zone, where there's no support or infrastructure or resources or tools, you do with what you have."
Not everyone who wants to be a teacher will be a good one. But research shows experience is key. And teachers I talked with were clear about the kinds of experiences that help them get better. They want mentors. They want time to collaborate with their colleagues. And they want opportunities to observe master teachers in action.
"What we believe is you have to recognize where greatness is and help other teachers see and learn from great teaching," says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, an education reform group in Tennessee that's been involved in a successful teacher improvement initiative in Chattanooga.
"You have to share what you're teaching," says Joe Curtis, a teacher involved in the same initiative. "Talk about it, not be afraid of messing up."
This is not the way teachers have typically worked in American schools. Teachers closed their doors — literally and figuratively. "Teachers were expected to do the education on their own," says Susan Moore Johnson. She says a more collaborative approach is what teachers need to get better.
"To move the mediocre to the good and the good to the great," says Dan Challener of the Public Education Foundation in Tennessee. "That's the challenge in America today."
Given how complex teaching is, the task will not be easy. But it's clear that American students need more good teachers. And that great teaching is an extraordinary achievement.