6 ways to prevent de-professionalization from devaluing great teachers

Professionals deserve investment and students deserve professionals. Their academic lives depend on it.
TJ Hoffman
TJ Hoffmanhttps://www.sibme.com/
TJ Hoffman is the chief operating officer at Sibme, a platform that powers professional development through virtual and hybrid coaching, peer-to-peer collaboration, cohort-based professional learning communities and micro-credentials. Hoffman has also worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, new teacher mentor coordinator and program manager at Pasadena and Houston ISDs in Texas.

Imagine you’re getting prepped for heart surgery when your surgeon says she’ll perform the procedure the same way she did on someone in 2000. You’d call the whole thing off and demand a medical professional who will conduct the operation based on the research and practices developed in the last 23 years. I certainly would.

We expect medical professionals to improve, so why would we expect any less of the professionals who guide children’s intellectual, behavioral and emotional growth? I’m not directing my question at teachers, rather I’m posing it in the face of an increasing array of actions and rhetoric that imply teaching is something anyone can do. Hiring trends over the last few years bear that out and the 300,000 unfilled teacher and staff positions following the height of the pandemic have put the loosening of teaching requirements in overdrive.

Practically, vacancies need to be filled and I believe most of the people filling them have the best intentions, but that doesn’t mean teachers won’t be left wondering why they bothered investing time and money in going to college. It’s exactly how I felt when I was teaching in my hometown while having to see ads that proclaimed: “Want to teach? When can you start?”

De-professionalization spreads from there. At its most insidious, it becomes a mindset as educators stop thinking of themselves as professionals. If you have teachers who are isolating from colleagues or expressing sentiments like “just tell me what you want me to do” and “it doesn’t matter,” you have a de-professionalization problem. Professionals want to have a say in their work.

School leaders can’t always control hiring standards set by the state or the quality of the candidates applying for jobs. Still, they can push back against de-professionalization in their schools and districts.

Defeating de-professionalization in your school

Here’s how to convey that you consider your staff professionals in their field and that they should too:

1. Don’t lower your expectations.

Changing hiring standards shouldn’t mean lowering your standards for teachers coming in through nontraditional pathways. Instead, the message should be clear and honest: this job is tough, and you won’t be perfect at it on day one, but you’re expected to improve and we’ll invest in your success.

2. Follow through on your promise.

Invest in teacher success. Professionals understand they need to evolve as the needs of their industry evolve. Educators must develop themselves to keep up with changes in students, communities, technology and teaching practices. The best way to encourage that kind of ownership is to provide avenues for quality professional development.

3. Commit to quality.

I know PD gets a bad reputation because it can miss the mark. That’s a fair criticism, but when it’s done right, it can make the difference between a teacher who stays and one who leaves—and a student who learns and one who doesn’t. So, you have to commit yourself to quality. Ask questions. Do the research. And don’t settle.

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As a former teacher with a decade of experience who now works in the PD space, my No. 1 tip is to stay away from any provider that describes their program as “delivering” PD. PD can’t be delivered, so an engaging slide deck and making people laugh during the presentation won’t cut it. Quality PD is hands-on skills development that requires rehearsal, feedback and reflection over weeks or months.

4. Trust your teachers.

They know what they need. Part of the responsibility of leadership is to set priorities and look at the data, but also to look to your teachers for information about what they want to learn and where they’re struggling. If you’ve gotten pushback on PD in the past, consider reflecting on what it offered your educators. Did it leave teachers wondering why they were even there? Did it feel like checking off a box? If so, it wasn’t a quality program. Trusting your teachers also means respecting their time, intelligence and agency, so make PD worthwhile, and they’ll show up for it fully.

5. Elevate the outstanding professionals around you.

A boss once told me that everyone does something well, but nobody does everything well. Teaching involves thousands of tasks and every teacher’s skill set varies. PD should elevate outstanding educators and scale their skills so that others can learn from them. Treating everyone at your school as someone their colleagues can learn from encourages professionalism by celebrating it and invites collaboration that contributes to collective efficacy.

I’ve watched this happen at Houston ISD, where I supported hundreds of teachers who’d been identified as leaders. One excelled at teaching literacy, another at developing classroom culture, and still another truly connected with multilingual students. Leaning on these educators built up their confidence as their guidance built up new teacher leaders, which created a network of professional support that contributed to improved teacher appraisal and student performance.

6. The cost is worth it.

There are budgets to consider, but quality PD is worth building into the equation. So, commit to quality, trust your teachers and elevate your professionals. Otherwise, they’re likely to walk away to another school or another profession, leaving you with another position to fill with a potentially less qualified candidate. Not only could it cost your students a great teacher, but also as much as $20,000 to find a new one.

While school leaders are always facing several issues at once regarding teacher recruitment and retention, de-professionalization deserves attention. Presently, major debates are taking place about school safety, social issues and curriculum appropriateness, which are important, but because they’ve become so politicized, they’ve sucked all the air out of the room. People have very strong opinions about them, but the general public doesn’t really know what a great teacher is, so they don’t advocate for it. School leaders can be those advocates.

A great teacher is a professional who takes responsibility for their students’ education and gets them to learn. The research makes it clear: the quality of a teacher is the No. 1 factor that impacts how much progress a student makes in a year. Professionals deserve investment and students deserve professionals. Their academic lives depend on preventing de-professionalization.

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