Specialized Knowledge

Over dinner recently, a friend said something that, while slightly offensive and upsetting, is, I’m confident, a commonly held perception in this country today.  We were discussing another friend’s new job.  He is working an entry-level position for a computer software company, still learning the skills and the language of computer programming, and he makes one-and-a-half times what I make as a teacher of nine years.  In another year or so, once he has mastered the job, he has the potential to make three times what I make.  It was hard to conceal my disgruntlement over this.  I certainly am not angry with him, and I certainly didn’t go into teaching for the money, but I was trying to express to my dining companions how these pay differentials show a skewed sense of priorities that we have in this country.  My other friend began trying to defend these numbers.  Her argument was, “Well, computer programmers have specialized knowledge.”

She didn’t say it directly, but the subtext is that we teachers don’t have any specialized knowledge, hence the lower pay: Anyone can be a teacher.

Almost everyone in the United States has had the experience of being in school, of having teachers.  I know that when I was in school I barely thought about my teachers.  My middle school and high school years were so filled with my own angst: boyfriends and friends, stress over balancing grades and my part-time job and my social life, sex, and my own burgeoning sense of self and who I wanted to be in the world, that I never thought about my teachers except in that hour when I was in their class.  When they told stories from their own lives, stories of their spouses or pets or children, it was impossible to picture them outside of their personas in the classroom, impossible to picture someone calling them by their first names or talking to them about anything other than their subject area.  I feel lucky that I had excellent teachers, and I truly learned a lot from them, but they really did not exist outside school in any concrete ways for me.  I never considered what went into preparing a lesson for the day or the time it took to grade papers or tests.  And I think most adults who aren’t themselves teachers or who don’t intimately know a teacher still wear this same kind of veil.  Most people think, “I know what being a teacher is like.  I had teachers for twelve years.  Anyone can be a teacher.”  After all, how is it that the terrible adage, “Those who can’t teach,” has stuck?

Indeed, much of our current legislation around education is rooted in similar thinking.  Programs like Teach for America and other similar fast-track credentialing programs operate on the basis that all it takes to be a teacher is some strong common sense and a college degree, and teaching is often seen as a “stepping-stone” to something better.  People who have no formal training in educational theory can become teachers and will learn as they go.  How hard can it really be?

But the statistics on the revolving door of education, the high numbers of teacher attrition, suggest otherwise.  Teaching is a demanding job with no easy formulas.  The fifty percent of teachers who leave the profession within the first five years surely know this.  I, as a teacher of nine years who still struggles every day as a teacher, know this, and the implication that what I do doesn’t require any specialized knowledge certainly feels like a slap in the face.

I teach at a large urban high school in San Francisco.  We are a school with a decent standing ranked statewide and a pretty good local reputation.  We are not one of the top, elite schools, but I think, in this way, we are representative of what school looks like for many kids in this country.  The majority of our kids go on to college, most of them to local community colleges first; a good number go into vocational fields after school, and a small but not un-notable number of our students drop out.  We have a sizeable special education department and an equally sizeable advanced placement and honors track.  We have clubs and sports teams and problems with graffiti and the occasional fight.  The student body of my school is complex, and the realities of their lives that they bring with them as learners inform my work on a day-to-day basis.  And these facts are only very surface-level observations; trying to define the realities that make up the daily work of a teacher go far beyond any demographic descriptors.

Any teacher will tell you that the title “teacher” really encompasses a number of different roles: we are mentors, cheerleaders, counselors, conflict mediators, and students ourselves.  We are required, at times, to fill the roles of parents and friends, and then, of course, we must aid in subject mastery with inspirational, relevant, culturally responsive, varied, differentiated, accessible pedagogy. Perhaps the reason it’s so hard to see this as “specialized” knowledge is that this work is so varied and so complex.

In a typical day of teaching, I call upon a wide range of skills and knowledge, some learned in my English courses, some learned in my education courses, some learned through the reading I’ve done over the course of my life, some learned from being in the classroom teaching for nine years, and some learned from colleagues and ongoing reflection and professional development.  I may be lecturing on Romanticism, guiding my students in creating tragedies based on Aristotle’s writings, helping students write literary analysis papers by developing a thesis or expanding their analytical thinking.  I may be coaching students to read a Shakespearean soliloquy in a way that demonstrates emotion and their understanding of the text, or I may be facilitating a discussion on issues related to cultural assimilation that come up in our reading of A Raisin in the Sun, discussion facilitation being a demanding skill in and of itself, which I could write a whole paper on (How do I challenge reticent students to speak up?  How do I encourage confident speakers to open up space?  How do I ensure that all voices and opinions are heard?  How do I ensure that students are making meaning and thinking in deep ways?).  I may be expounding on finer nuances of vocabulary words; pushing kids to make inferences in their reading, or understand the symbolism or metaphor of a poem.  I may be reviewing rules on the uses of semicolons or how to do MLA citations.  I may be planning a lesson that takes into account the students who are noted as gifted and talented and the kid in the same class who is barely literate, or that addresses the learning needs of a student who does well with seatwork and her neighbor who can barely sit still for ten minutes.  I may be helping a student organize a binder.  I may be facilitating small group work or doing conflict resolution when groups come to an impasse.  I may be handling the daily homophobia of high school students in a way that doesn’t simply dismiss the offender but also makes it clear that intolerance is unacceptable.  I may be working one-on-one with a student who has only been in the country for two years or with a student who has severe cognitive disabilities (and, yes, I have had these students, often with an aid or para and often without).  I may be listening to a student who hasn’t eaten in days, whose best friend was just killed in gun violence, or who is simply anxious of graduating from high school.  I may be calling home or meeting with parents, guardians, counselors, or specialists to provide the services a student needs.  I may be writing letters of recommendation or writing referrals for misbehavior.  I may be working with a student teacher whom I’m mentoring, looking over lesson plans, trouble-shooting, or writing evaluations.  I am usually grading papers, trying to provide feedback that is meaningful and helpful to my students’ growth.  And I am usually doing all this, trying to ensure that I am holding myself to high standards for equity and fairness, that I am keeping my classroom student-centered rather than teacher-dominant, that I am allowing my students to use their voices and express themselves, and that I honor student experiences while still pushing them to go beyond their comfort levels.  I am reading the most recent literature on pedagogy or attending seminars or trainings, some mandatory, others voluntary.  I do all this to ensure that all of my one hundred and sixty students are joyful, empowered, successful learners.

And some days, I even feel successful!  I’ve built positive relationships with a number of students, some of whom I kept in touch with after graduation and now have real, adult friendships with.  I’ve had students tell me that, because of my class, they now love reading or realize they actually have things to write about.  I’ve even had a student tell me that my class changed his life and gave him the hope to go to college.  I’ve mentored student teachers who have gone on to have successful careers in education and who feel like they, too, are making a difference in the lives of young people.

My successes haven’t happened by accident.  They were not the result of simple common sense.  I’ve done a great deal of thinking about my pedagogy, about how to build in student choice, about how to build relationships with students.  I’ve had my share of failures and done a great deal of (sometimes tearful) reflection on what went wrong.

And I’ve worked really hard.  Especially in my first few years of teaching, I worked every weekend, developing my unit plans, grading, calling the families of my students.  I currently commute to work on public transportation, and, nearly every day, in my hour and a half round-trip on BART, I grade papers.  The pull to simply use multiple choice scanning machines or put a simple letter grade on an essay with no feedback is strong, and I sympathize with teachers who have over one hundred and fifty students and maybe even children of their own.  My sometimes seventy or eighty hour work weeks don’t feel sustainable, and I often feel torn between wanting to have more time for myself and wanting to provide as much support for all my students as I can.  It’s unfortunate that many teachers feel they have to choose between these options, and it’s unfortunate when teachers give up by leaving the classroom all together or by simply not seriously engaging in the real work of the classroom.  I always work through lunch, and I always have to laugh a bit when I get home and check my email to find that my friends who have office jobs have emailed me comics, funny stories, or YouTube posts.  When do they find time to do this while at work?

My work feels challenging and meaningful.  It certainly feels specialized to me.  But the other extreme of this thinking is equally discouraging.  Many excellent teachers make teaching look effortless, while, in reality their jobs are incredibly demanding.  While I want to be recognized for the work I do, I do not want to be a martyr.  The teachers who are doing excellent work should be viewed as professionals.  This means they should be paid equitably and seen as experts in their field.  It’s true that I didn’t go into teaching for the money, but if we want to ensure that our young people are getting the best education, we have to be serious about how we treat those who are providing that education.  Studies show that having excellent teachers is the number one factor in student academic success.

But teacher burn-out is real.  The workload is heavy, and the acknowledgement we get for the work we do is minimal.  The recent research I’ve done as a member of the Teachers Leadership Institute Policy Fellowship looking at causes for high rates of teacher attrition in San Francisco Unified School District confirms that teacher working conditions and workload are a key cause of teachers leaving the profession.  Nine policy fellows interviewed thirty-four San Francisco public school teachers who met publicly recognized standards for being considered excellent teachers.  The interviewees represent the full range of schools in the district.  From these thirty-four interviews, one hundred decisions to stay at a school site, move schools, or leave teaching or the district altogether were identified and analyzed.  We all worked together to answer the question, “What working conditions are necessary to attract and retain highly effective teachers in high-needs schools?”

Teacher attrition rates are incredibly high.  While certainly any job has attrition, and surely many teachers might, like other professionals, realize that the job just isn’t for them, this attrition has its costs.  Studies estimate the annual cost of teacher turnover to be more than $200 million in California alone.  Money is spent on recruiting and hiring new teachers rather than supporting those teachers already in the profession or funding school resources or infrastructure.  Further, high rates of teacher attrition exacerbate inequity in education and further the “achievement gap.”  High-needs schools have teacher turnover rates three times higher than high-performing schools in San Francisco Unified, and this is problem is echoed in other parts of the country.  The majority of new teachers get placed in high-needs schools, where they will have a much harder time developing their skills and will face the most difficult working conditions, thus accelerating high teacher turnover from high-needs schools.  We know that this constant turnover fractures the entire school community: Students lose the value of being taught by experienced teachers and teachers who know them; teachers lose the opportunity to build strong communities, and administration cannot build a stable environment with any solid institutional memory.  All of this leads to even more teacher turnover creating a revolving door of teacher retention.

In our interviews with teachers from a wide range of backgrounds, teaching assignments, and years of experience, teachers cited workload numerous times as a cause for low morale or even a desire to leave the profession or change schools.  Teachers describe the work as “insane and ridiculously unreasonable.”  High school teachers point out that they have up to one hundred and seventy students a day, and that grading papers and meeting all the students’ needs can be draining.  One teacher said, “How long can I do this?  [Other jobs are] not going to take me working fourteen hours a day.”  Another teacher, who says she always worked a lot at her other jobs, said that teaching required “just way too many hours to get done what you needed to get done. It was twice the amount of work than anything I’ve ever done.”  Another teacher at a low-performing school stated flatly, “[I felt like I had] been run over by a truck [at the end of each day].”  And finally, one teacher summed it up best when saying, “Even the best teachers can only do so much, and instruction and planning suffer when teachers are spread too thin.”  We have a real paradox in education in this country: We wouldn’t dream of sending our children to schools with less than excellent teachers, and yet we act as though anyone can teach.  We want the best teachers for our youth, but we refuse to recognize that we must fund and support excellent teachers, and we must create an environment where new teachers get to become excellent teachers.  This will not happen by magic or by simply complaining about our educational system today or about its teachers.

I have heard of various models for teacher workload that are provocative and compelling.  For the past few decades, education reformers have been comparing the United States public education to other countries’ approaches, and while these comparisons warrant a much deeper look and aren’t always relatable, different models of teacher workload are at least worth thinking about.  In Japan, for instance, schools are structured to provide more common planning time between teachers, and teachers teach sixty percent of the time while using that other forty percent to plan, analyze student work, and collaborate.  This is in contrast with American teachers who spend an average of eighty percent of their work day in front of students and only have twenty percent of their time for preparation and analysis of student work.

Another model that offers stark contrast to the reality of a teacher’s day is to imagine a performer.  Musicians, for instance, spend most of their working time practicing.  They use these non-performances hours to warm up, hone techniques, analyze their strengths and weakness and practice the parts that need extra work.  Imagine if performers worked like teachers.  They would spend eighty percent of their time performing in front of audiences, being on.  Of course their performances would be far from perfect; they would have no time to reflect or improve.

This is not to say that teachers should only teach twenty percent of the time.  I wouldn’t want this for the simple fact that I teach to be with students.  But I also realize that my work with students improves dramatically when I have time in my work day to plan to incorporate best practices or to look at student work to see what skills my students still need support with or what they’re doing well that I can build on.  I want to be the best teacher I can be, and this means that I can’t be frazzled, underslept, or unaware of my students’ needs because I have no time in my day to stop and process.

A number of other solutions exist that would ensure that teachers feel supported not overwhelmed and that would help guarantee that all students get to learn from excellent teachers.  Of course, many of these solutions, such as reducing class size or class load, do require funding, an unpopular reality given the current economic climate, but not all the solutions require extra money.  And, in addressing issues of teacher morale in the face of a demanding workload and low or dismissive public sentiment towards the profession, the solution is free: Support teachers and the work they do.  Recognize the excellence that does exist in our public schools.  (Of course, I’m not arguing that one hundred percent of teachers are excellent one hundred percent of the time, but we are also not the villains in the story that is being told about the “decline of American education today!”)  Get involved with your local school or your kids’ school.  Thank the teachers you know who are doing their demanding job expertly.  Talk about teachers like professionals who do indeed have a great deal of specialized knowledge.


2 thoughts on “Specialized Knowledge

  1. I tried my hand at teaching and couldn’t handle it. Working in IT is so much easier. I have the greatest amount of respect and admiration for what you do.

  2. Great post. I’d add that some of my programmer friends not only recognize that teaching takes specialized knowledge, but also acknowledge that they are simply lucky that their particular skill set is valued in various ways.

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