As dust from the pandemic settles, students across America are facing another disruption to quality education. This crisis, however, shouldn’t be a surprise. It is two centuries in the making.
The most recent legislation introduced in Congress, which would see a minimum salary base of $60,000 for public school teachers, is certainly a welcome step in the right direction. However, it still misdiagnoses the problem; burnout will still occur, regardless of the paycheck. That’s why we need to fundamentally reimagine the role of a teacher in the modern classroom.
The teacher job description crafted in the 1800s by the Common School Movement led by Horace Mann served a one-adult-room-full-of-kids model with the goal of civilizing American children. Hopefully, in the year 2023, we can aspire beyond assimilation as the goal of education and aim for creating learning spaces that value diversity and support every student in reaching their full, authentic potential.
That higher goal requires recognizing that, today, we are asking one teacher to perform too many functions, in not enough time, and for too little compensation. As an educator, I know that we are asking individual teachers to be a content area expert, instructional designer, academic coach, family communicator, interior designer, and social-emotional monitor with limited support.
We rely on the teacher’s desire to make a difference to keep them in the profession, but we’ve maintained a system that makes it increasingly elusive to make that difference. Systemic burnout forces teachers to leave the profession, while stagnant pay and the plummeting reputation of the profession prevents promising educators from joining in the first place.
To address the shortage, I suggest we knock down the walls erected by the one room schoolhouse. My proposition, the “Teaching Without Walls model,” recognizes that teaching the whole child includes multiple roles: instructional designer, academic coach, and social-emotional monitor. Let’s not limit our classrooms by looking for one person who can fulfill all of those roles independently. Let’s build on the technology applications learned during pandemic remote instruction. In the same way that businesses have lowered geographic barriers to expand hiring opportunities, school districts can seek beyond local candidates to connect certified teachers with underserved classrooms.
Envision a classroom of students engaging with a dynamic teacher visible through movie-sized monitors. This certified teacher, with subject matter and research-backed instructional design expertise, can be across the district, country, or world. A qualified math teacher from North Carolina could describe algebra to students in Nebraska, while a physics teacher in Maryland could describe an exothermic reaction to students in Milwaukee. Technology can remove barriers to hiring teachers with expertise. When mathematics and sciences face the largest exodus, the importance of freeing this knowledge from the confines of geography shouldn’t be underestimated.
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