Career Pathways in Education … A One-lane Dirt Road

Career Pathways in Education … A One-lane Dirt Road

Careers are a funny thing. My grandfather once told me that if you find the thing you love to do and you do that for a living, you will never work a day in your life. He was right. However, doing what you love to do has to “pay the piper.” A career must fulfill you in so many ways: It must bring you joy, it must give you passion, and it must give you something to look forward to.

Through my work as Director of Mobilization and Education with Hope Street Group, I have the privilege of working with teachers from all across the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I began this work with my only experience in public education similar to that of most Americans … I was a student and I am a parent of students. Having spent many hours with teachers over the past two school years, I have learned a few things about teachers and their profession:

  1. Teachers love kids. They are their passion. They are why they do what they do.
  2. Teachers love to teach and to watch children learn.
  3. Teachers love the work. It takes an undeniable work ethic and understanding of the craft of teaching to prepare our children for the next grade, for college, or for a career.
  4. Teachers are professionals and are both held accountable and hold themselves personally accountable for the progress of their students.
  5. Teachers know best what is needed to improve education. The classroom is their office, their small business, and they love to see it grow.
  6. Teachers are expected to do SO much more than teach. Teachers in too many, if not most cases, have to be the parent, the counselor, the custodian, the repairman, the potty monitor, the lunchroom marshal, the disciplinarian, the supporter of their colleagues, the peer observer, the Professional Learning Network leader, the master teacher that helps new teachers, the role model, the bus monitor, the ballgame attendant, the ticket taker, the greeter, the secretary, the copier repairman, the administrative staff, and on and on and on … all while making sure our kids are ready for the college they want to attend or the career they want to get into.

As my time with teachers has evolved, I have learned one very disturbing fact about the current design of our education system: Teachers are limited in how they can further their career. When a teacher starts to teach, professional advancement is really limited. A teacher can attain their master’s degree and get a small pay bump, or a teacher can become a National Board Certified Teacher and get another small incremental pay raise. Short of these methods, there is no other real systemic opportunity that allows the teacher to do what they love to do and advance their career while remaining in the classroom a the same time. In many cases, this leaves a highly trained professional frustrated when they realize that there are limited opportunities for growth. Teachers can take on additional work outside the classroom in fellowships or other similar programs to develop their craft and earn some extra money, but that requires more time away from their families. It is in essence a second, part-time job. Teachers can also work to get certified to become principals or other administrative staff, but that takes them out of the classroom and away from our kids, which was the very reason they started in this profession to begin with: to teach children.

I recently heard a speaker say we don’t tell surgeons that they have to stop practicing surgery in order to advance in their career. As a matter of fact, surgeons become heads of surgical departments because of the way they practice their craft and, in a very real way, help others reach or exceed their potential level of expertise.

Why have we not done something similar for our teachers and, more importantly, our children? If our most talented teachers have to leave the classroom to advance in their profession, what are we doing but hurting our children, our communities, and the educational system as a whole?

A very dear teacher friend of mine recently made this comment on teachers’ professional advancement:

This situation reminds me, again, that there is little to no flexibility in the current Classroom Teacher model. In the military or business world, an exemplary employee or soldier would be taken from his/her position and moved up. A soldier would be put in charge of a squad or platoon, and an employee might take over training duties in a sales division. In both cases, they would receive a change of rank or status, and most likely receive higher compensation. A teacher, however, who seeks to rise up and take on more responsibility, must do so at the expense of her/her personal life and sacrifice the quality of teaching for being too busy and professionally stretched.

This teacher is a valuable leader in his school, his specialty, and his organization. This teacher has a history of service to our country and leadership experience in and out of the classroom. He has served as the president of professional associations. He has engaged his colleagues in such a way to make the learning culture and environment better for him and those around him. But, I am sad to say, he has also come to the realization that without systemic change, he will have to leave the classroom, the profession he loves, and the kids he hoped to influence in order to better provide for his family.

The solutions to this problem are easy to talk about, but much more difficult to implement.  Developing an organized, compensated, logical career pathway for teachers is easy in concept; take those teachers that excel in their craft and place them in positions where they can lead from the classroom in order to enhance the profession and improve the learning environment for our kids. These discussions are already underway across the nation, but we need to ensure they result in action.

We, as a people, have taken for granted far too long the idea that the educational system and those in it will simply be content with the status quo. Careers are a funny thing … too often unappreciated and taken for granted. We should take the time to thank the teachers that are preparing our children for the future and dedicate ourselves to a better, stronger, and more fulfilling pathway for our teachers. In the end, it is our children who win.

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