This commentary has been adapted from the preface of Matthew Weber’s forthcoming book, Elevating the Teaching Profession, out in April on Rowman and Littlefield.
An unconventional 41-year career as an educator has given me a unique perspective on teaching from distinct vantage points. Alternating work with research and classroom practice, my entire public school service experience was in Title I districts with high poverty rates. After retiring as both an idealist and pragmatist, the past three years have been a time of reflection on both the past and present.
We live in a turbulent time for education; health issues have upended traditional routines, and divisiveness lingers over school safety. The pandemic has been disruptive to students’ education, ushering in a formidable shift in how teachers deliver instruction. Evaluating the impact on learning, particularly on economically disadvantaged students, will take time.
However, adversity should also be viewed as an opportunity to reflect, assess, and reimagine teaching. The longer-term impact may be constructive if the disruption derails education complacency and inspires reinvestment and innovation. The United States’ vision from 56 years ago of a “great society” and its “war on poverty” is ripe for the next level of foresight and action.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson persuaded Congress to approve the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most extensive and system-altering educational bill ever legislated by the federal government. That same year, at a Howard University commencement ceremony, the president delivered a speech titled “To Fulfill These Rights,” which included the following words:
Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in — by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.
In subsequent years, educators have become more cognizant of the profound influence of those unseen forces. Studies in psychology and human development have raised awareness of the distinct needs of students born in poverty and the lasting effects of a deprived home environment. Still, progress has been slow and uneven with student achievement across developmental domains. Since that historic legislation, other countries’ education systems have also begun outperforming the U.S. on the global stage.
While some students performed well during the pandemic, educators report that those without a reliable internet connection, time management skills, or family support suffered disproportionally during virtual learning. In addition to a learning loss in core subjects, depression and anxiety magnified students’ distress. Moreover, many of these problems were exacerbated due to significant declines in student school enrollment, attendance, and general engagement.
Consequently, educators were forced to adapt during the pandemic and implemented nascent approaches in their pedagogy, given the various emergency measures. Congruent with the learning setbacks, some resultant upsides emerged from necessity.
Many schools and districts were forced to upgrade their technology infrastructure, adaptive learning software, and virtual learning capability. Teachers’ general capacity to creatively use and apply technology increased dramatically. Many students had to become more independent and improve their time management skills. In coordinating remote learning, household communication improved as parents became aware of expanded learning options for their children. The crisis spurred government leaders to acknowledge that access to universal Wi-Fi and instructional devices is no longer a luxury but a necessity for educational parity.
Perhaps the most salient lesson learned from the pandemic was how much we still need teachers. Technology will never usurp the fundamental auspices of principals, master teachers, counselors, and other support staff. As social learners, students require guidance, structure, and reassurance from adults. Empirical evidence suggests that economically disadvantaged students suffer the most from the restricted personal connection of over-reliance on technology.
Students’ relationships with teachers promote psychological well-being, and this alliance is necessary for cognitive, social, and emotional development. Digital tools such as dashboards and teaching alerts serve as increasingly powerful instructional assistants for learning reinforcement and enrichment. Astute educators will reflect on the real-life pandemic experiment as an opportune juncture to assess and refine technology integration for instructional efficiency.
Accepting the premise that teachers cannot be replaced in the foreseeable future and are the most critical component of student realization of future readiness, how do education and government leaders transform and enhance the profession?
The status quo is antiquated: it falters with crisis talent shortages, and the situation is only projected to intensify further. Preserving the United States’ global standing and the country’s expanding democratic principles for equality are inseparably coupled with the plight of teachers. Reinvigorating the teaching profession requires decisive and calculated action to reorganize the culture and education ecosystem.
Enticing growing pools of talent into the teaching profession involves establishing a vibrant academic culture and altering the perception of a teacher’s value. Attracting and retaining effective teachers require flexibility, investing in development, advancing career opportunities, earning classroom autonomy, promoting leadership responsibilities, and offering higher compensation for outstanding performance.
As educators move on from the distress of online schooling, a unique opportunity has arrived for molding efficacious teaching systems and shaping a teaching profession of the highest caliber. Returning to “business as usual” without adjusting from reflection and objective analysis is willful blindness. Learning from our current setbacks, educators can view returning to the classroom as an invitation to emerge, evolve, and reach a higher level. By redefining the role of the teacher as a progressively flourishing leader and researcher, school districts move closer to a culture that will ensure student agency for life. Like the desired graduating student’s profile, the teaching structure should promote lifelong learners.
Progress begins with honestly acknowledging the present status of the teaching workforce and forecasting the profession’s efficacy for the coming decades if nothing changes. The blueprint includes studying external exemplar models, designing systems to stimulate the enhancement of teachers, and committing to the plan. Our tools for a renaissance are mirrors for reflection, windows to observe, a collective conscience to guide, and the persistence to transform.