A better side hustle for teachers

Moonlighting at an assembly line might help teachers pay the bills, but it won’t help their students learn more. There is a better way.
By: | October 15, 2019

Former teacher Michael Driskill is the chief operating officer at Math for America.

CBS News recently published a story explaining how South Carolina teachers, including an award-winning teacher-of-the-year, work nights on an assembly line to make ends meet.

These side hustles for teachers are common in many states, as recent reports have shown. Low pay isn’t the only reason that teachers are picking up extra jobs: a survey released this week revealed that 96% of teachers personally pay for their own supplies. The combination of low wages and lack of professional respect is seen as a driving force behind America’s teacher shortage, which is now at crisis levels.

There is a silver lining in all this bad news: teachers are so committed to their profession that they are willing to do additional work outside of their normal teaching hours to stay in their chosen field. This is good news because additional work for teachers is one of the main ways we can improve education in the U.S. That extra work, however, should boost student achievement instead of Uber’s bottom line.

Lesson study

Countries with high-performing education systems know that work beyond time spent teaching is the key to student success. In Japan, for example, teachers spend many hours together outside the classroom engaged in a collaborative process called “lesson study.” Like surgeons debriefing a complex procedure, Japanese teachers watch each other teach and then analyze what works and what doesn’t in their lessons, to gradually improve them over time. All that extra work for teachers pays off: Japan is a regular high performer on comparative international tests.

In the early 2000s, I visited Japan as a guest of the Japanese Government as part of a program designed to improve mutual relations and understanding of our different education systems. At the time I was teaching math in a large urban high school in New York City. I was surprised not only by how much time teachers spent together after teaching, but how differently the profession was viewed in Japan, where teaching is widely considered one of the most rigorous and prestigious jobs in society. In Japan, teachers don’t practice for a couple years before moving on to bigger and better things. Japanese educators were equally surprised to learn that in America I was regularly asked what I planned to do next.

Recent international studies by leading researchers have shown that a commitment to professionalizing teaching is a key to success in many high-performing nations, not just Japan. These countries recognize that teaching is complex and that teachers, like doctors and lawyers, spend considerable time working together outside the operating rooms and courtrooms where the “real” work is done.

Creating new opportunities

How do we take the U.S. from a country where teachers can’t pay the bills, and turn it into a global leader in education? We can start by creating additional paid opportunities (through stipends and other means) that allow teachers to work extra hours and tackle the intellectually demanding, reflective, and collaborative work necessary to move the profession forward.

These opportunities should bring together teachers who work at the same school, but also connect outstanding teachers from many different schools, as we do in the fellowship program that I lead in New York City.

Finding the money will be a challenge to creating these new opportunities for teachers to work together, but it can be done. Policymakers can create programs and fund them publicly or in partnership with private philanthropy. Either way, these efforts demand the political will to ignore quick-fixes and educational fads in favor of slow-but-steady progress towards educational excellence.

In the 1970s Finland’s education system was in crisis. A solution was proposed that was viewed as radical at the time: transform teaching into a profession with similar prestige to medicine and law. The proposal was controversial and many believed that teachers weren’t up to the task.

Today in Finland, it’s easier to become a doctor than a teacher, and the Finish education system is one of the world’s best. We can transform education similarly in the U.S. To get there we need to show teachers the money and professional respect they deserve.

Former teacher Michael Driskill is the chief operating officer at Math for America.