The Professional Teacher
I received an interesting response from a teacher to a blog entry I made in support of giving teachers time to collaborate. In that entry (posted January 29, 2007) I attempted to make the point that in other professions, collaboration is an accepted part of professional practice and that teachers should be treated as professionals and given time to collaborate.
One of the respondents, a teacher, objected, saying I was making false analogies as justification for bullying teachers into things they didn’t want to do. Professionals, in his view, are free to make all their decisions based on their "own professional experience and intellectual discretion." As he writes, "real professionals do not submit to anyone’s view but their own." If we follow this logic, every teacher should be free to teach what he/she wants, when he/she wants, how he/she wants, assess student learning however and whenever he/she wants, and respond to students who experience difficult in whatever way he/she sees fit. Every teacher should be able to ignore the consistent research findings over 35 years on the benefits of students having access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum regardless of who the teacher is, of the link between collaborative school cultures and high student achievement, of the importance of effective formative assessments in the teaching and learning process, of systematic interventions that provide students with additional time and support for learning, etc.
The respondent defines being a professional as being able to disregard all research, all evidence, and all other points of view than his own. I could not disagree more. A "professional" is someone with expertise in a specialized field, an individual who has not only pursued advanced training to enter the field, but who is also expected to remain current in its evolving knowledge base.
My son took several AP courses in high school. These courses had prescribed curricula and high stakes comprehensive examinations. I was grateful that his teachers worked together collaboratively to become student of their AP curriculum, to discuss how to pace it, to study released sets of AP exams, to create a series of formative assessments based on the AP assessments to monitor student learning and to help students become familiar with the AP format, to explore different ways to teach key concepts, and to help students review and prepare for the exam. A teacher who consistently helped students achieve at the highest levels on the challenging AP exams was willing to share strategies, methods, and ideas with colleagues because each teacher was interested in and supportive of the learning of all the students in the course, not merely those assigned to their classrooms. I believe they personified professionals. If each had said, "I see no need to submit to the tyranny of the College Board, I will teach what I want, how I want, assess whatever and however I choose," they would have been exercising their "discretion" and refusing to"submit to anyone’s view but their own;" however, they would be the anti-thesis of professionalism because they would not be acting in the best interests of those they are expected to serve.
Recently, a comprehensive study established that performing an angioplasty, a painful and potentially fatal operation, was no more effective in preventing heart attacks than medication and exercise. That finding will have an enormous impact on the medical field, and the number of angioplasties performed in this country will plummet. Professionals do not disregard evidence or assume the knowledge they have when they enter the field will be sufficient for an entire career. They are willing to adjust their practice on the basis of evidence.
That is what we advocate for educators. That they come together to develop strategies for gathering evidence that their students are learning the things that the teachers have agreed are most essential, they discuss the evidence, and use it to inform and shape their practice. Of course, this is a feckless activity to one who believes every teacher is king of his kingdom, free to follow his personal discretion and unique vision.
This respondent continues to harp on the idea that the PLC concept is an attempt to "bully" teachers into a prescribed way of teaching. I have written 8 books and 50 articles. Not once I have ever suggested that all teachers be required to teach the same way. I have seen some brilliant teachers get wonderful results with direct instruction. I have seen others get equally terrific results with cooperative learning. Teachers at my former school were not asked to obey, or conform, but they were asked to honor and apply practices that have been well established as having a positive impact on student achievement and school culture, a guaranteed curriculum, a collaborative culture, formative assessments to monitor student learning, systematic interventions when they don’t learn. Those teachers have unique styles, personalities, and philosophies, but they were also open to the possibility that someone, somewhere might teach a concept better than they did, and they were willing, even eager, to learn from one another. They welcomed the process that enabled them to do so. They valued the time they were given to collaborate and sought more rather than less time to work with colleagues.
Perhaps the most tiresome of this respondent’s entry is that non-teacher education leadership is infantilizing teachers by suggesting it knows better than they what teachers should do. Why is it then that groups that have specifically been established to support and enhance the teaching profession have insisted that teachers, as a matter of right, should be working in professional learning communities? Why have both the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future made shaping schools into professional learning communities one of their core strategies for making the profession more rewarding? Why is it that the National Education Association’s plan for improving schools calls for teachers to work together collaboratively to promote continuous improvement of teaching and learning to achieve shared goals? Why is it that the American Federation of Teachers has called for schools to engage teachers in a continuous process of individual and collective examination and improvement of practice as the best method of improving schools?
There is simply no evidence that encouraging each teacher to work in isolation in autonomous classrooms to teach his or her own curriculum according to his or her own idiosyncratic philosophy, vision, and discretion creates a school culture that is beneficial to either students or teachers. Those who advocate such a position should do more than attack the integrity of proponents of PLCs. They should present compelling evidence that their ideas lead to better teaching and learning.