The Only Way Out Is Up

“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to teach teachers,” said no one, ever.
You may be surprised to know that being a teacher of teachers is a highly coveted position in education circles. After a few years in the classroom, many teachers discover that their passion lies not so much with teaching children, but, as it turns out, other teachers. With all the wisdom of two, three, or five years of professional teaching under their belts, they will earnestly tell you of their newly realized professional ambition: supporting teachers.
As social beings, humans seek order and hierarchy in complex systems. Not unlike other industries, education professionals are organized in a complex and hushed hierarchy of respect, authority, and salary.  But unlike other professions, the people most directly responsible for outcomes are at the bottom of the totem pole, scavenging for resources.
Teaching is a relatively static profession. There is no clear career ladder with universally accepted benchmarks of achievement. There are few, if any, promotions. In law, one might aim to someday be a judge or make partner at a prestigious firm. In business, young associates set their sights on the C-suite.  In medicine, there’s a strict progression from intern to resident to attending. But in teaching, a prolific career could blossom in the same classroom, with the same title, over the course of 30 or 40 years. The salary increments are marginal. The prestige is limited and local. The accolades are private. An enduring teaching career runs counter to almost every indicator of success in our culture. It’s less like a ladder and more like a Ferris wheel.
But Americans, particularly Millenials, are not conditioned for success in stagnation. Raised on titles and trophies, we’re looking for the next rung before we’ve even steadied our footing. In a commencement address at Harvard Business School, Sheryl Sandberg compared the 21st century career path to a jungle gym instead of a ladder. But a jungle gym still contains a variety of heights – encouraging risky jumps and maneuvers to become king or queen of the playground. Rather than allow for some professional gymnastics within the teaching profession, the education industry has outsourced the monkey bars to various “Offices Of.”
It pains me to admit that a certain Miley Cyrus song seems particularly prescient here: it’s the climb, and young education professionals seem to be always looking for the next mountain to conquer. Suddenly, dozens of new positions with fancy titles exist in schools and districts and Teach for America offices across the country. Instructional Support Teacher, Model Teacher, Lead Teacher, Program Director, Vice President of Leadership Development, Director of School Leadership, Director of School Design, Director of Teaching and Learning, etc. Surely, all of these roles are filled with passionate, well-intentioned, intelligent people working to improve the country’s education system and provide excellent learning experiences for children. But arguably, the easiest way to provide excellent learning experiences for children is to be an excellent teacher of children. Many of these newly invented roles are filled by former teachers, which begs the questions: are these new roles truly necessary for providing excellent education, or have they been created to make adults feel better?
Most of these positions are accompanied by salaries and benefits equal to or better than those of teachers. And instead of managing and catering to the unique needs of up to 150 young people every day, these other education professionals can retreat to comfortable climate controlled offices where they will engage with (mostly) rational adults all day.  What sane person wouldn’t view this as a step up in the world: equal or better pay for an easier job that still serves a higher purpose.  Certainly, these professionals make worthy contributions to education. However, I have to wonder if their contributions are absolutely essential to the education system, or if they are diverting the already scarce human capital and other resources away from the classrooms they aim to serve.
In its simplest form, education involves only a teacher and a student (think Socrates). What would happen if we streamlined all resources for the direct benefit of students and teachers? If instead of having PowerPoints and Curriculum Manuals and managers and managers of managers, every classroom had three certified teachers and one-to-one internet-ready technological devices? In which system would students thrive? In which system would adults thrive in their chosen professions? And might they be one and the same?

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