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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 08/30/2011

The plight of great teachers

This post was written by Nancy Flanagan, an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She writes for her blog “Teacher in a Strange Land” for Education Week Teacher (on which a version of this appeared), and her work is featured on the Web site Teachers Lead.

By Nancy Flanagan

Let's say you are a teacher, and not just any teacher. You are one of those special teachers we hear about in news and policy discussions — the supposedly rare educator who has passionate disciplinary expertise, a toolbag full of teaching strategies and genuine caring for their students. You became an educator because you want to make a difference, change the world, raise the bar. You love teaching, finding it endlessly variable and challenging. You plan to spend a long time in the classroom.

So you begin pursuing a graduate degree in education. You notice that getting a masters degree in education is scorned in policy world as having little impact on student learning. A few of your classes are tedious. But some of them are genuinely interesting and valuable, pushing you to think more deeply about the work you do and increasing your content knowledge. Even though pundits declare your advanced degree does not correlate with increased student achievement, you press on. You're enjoying the intellectual stimulation and — let's face it --accruing credits is another way to increase your salary and you need the money.

You're fascinated by new instructional strategies and curriculum ideas. You're eager to learn.

But your district — which just replaced all its computers in the past two years — has no money for professional development. So you burn two of your business days, pay your own registration fee and mileage, and travel with three colleagues to a conference across the state, where — being a teacher type — you attend every single session and collect tons of free stuff to take back to your classroom in a canvas bag (which you will later give to a student as a reward for reading 25 books). The four of you share the $200 hotel room, and split a pizza. The high life.

You're eager to share new techniques with colleagues when you return. (Those digital books would be killer for your schoolwide Mark Twain unit!) But then the State Board, in its wisdom, removes Huckleberry Finn from the 9th grade curriculum framework because talking about race is too risky for teenagers, even though you've been doing just that for 10 years and getting amazing feedback from students about these tough conversations.

After 15 years, when you have children and a mortgage — but still love teaching — you decide to sit for National Board Certification. You already have an advanced degree and a wall covered with certificates, but National Board Certification is a greater test of your knowledge and skills than anything you've tackled.

You spend about 300 hours videotaping and analyzing your lessons, finding some genuine gaps in your understanding and mastery of good instruction, curriculum and assessment. You share these perceived needs with other candidates for certification — breaking out of the egg-crate isolation endemic in teaching, and looking critically at your practice. In preparation for the National Board subject matter exams, you do a thorough content review across your disciplinary field. 

And your good work and honed expertise pay off — you're among the fraction of National Board candidates who achieve certification in the first round. This means the fee for certification (about 5% of your annual salary) will be paid back and — because you're lucky enough to live in a state where National Board Certification is rewarded by a salary incentive — you'll get a $2,500 annual bonus for 10 years. You may actually be able to replace your 10-year old car.

You're not the kind of person to rest on your laurels, however. You're already looking around for the next challenge in your personal pursuit of excellence when you read these stories:

*Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declares that your graduate degree is essentially worthless. "Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science."

*The state superintendent in Oklahoma, Janet Barresi, gives herself and her aides a raise, but cancels National Board bonuses for teachers there.

*Duncan, at last week's Twitter Town Hall, worries about losing "great young talent," through what former D.C. schools chancellor and national school reformer Michelle Rhee calls “the insanity” of last-in, first-out policies let the least experienced teachers go. You wonder why nobody's defending great, experienced talent in the educator pool.

*Teach for America becomes more high profile than ever. At the University of Wisconsin, Emma Spath, the UW-Madison campus campaign coordinator for the organization, wrote in a letter to the editor in the Badger Herald: “I'm especially excited that 350 students applied from our institution alone. A new federal budget proposal would dim future admissions prospects for college seniors. Teach For America requested $50 million from Congress to meet demand among college students and communities. Without federal funding, Teach For America would be unable to hire more than 1,350 teachers who would reach 86,000 students in the 2011-12 school year. We need programs like Teach For America to increase educational opportunity in our public schools."

You do the math. Teach for America needs $50 million to hire 1,350 teachers? That's $37,000 per teacher — new college graduates who get five weeks of summer training before teaching in some of the country’s neediest schools — while 91,000 National Board Certified Teachers are losing their very modest bonuses all across the country. You wonder precisely whose educational opportunities are being threatened.

How does it feel to have your profession and classroom become society's laboratory, subject to overhaul at every election cycle?

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