I treasure the memory of my deeply satisfying three-year stint teaching English and ancient history in grades 9, 10, and 11 at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia many years ago (an experience documented in some detail at the blog www.entwinedlives.com). So I read Frank Bruni’s thought provoking article in the August 12 New York Times – “Can We Interest You In Teaching?” – with real interest. Bruni explores a classic strategic issue that must be on the minds of most, if not all, board-savvy superintendents and their school boards these days: attracting top professionals to their classrooms – and retaining them over the long haul. There is universal agreement that human resource development is a preeminent leadership function and a key governing responsibility as well. And there’s no question this is a huge challenge. Referring to severe teacher shortages around the country and extraordinarily high teacher turnover, Bruni observes that “it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be.”
Of course, superintendents and their school boards don’t have anything close to a free hand in dealing with the strategic issue of attracting and retaining top professionals in the classroom. Among other things, the national accountability push in recent years has put tremendous pressure on districts around the country to “teach to the test,” which has to be a real downer to many truly creative teachers. Also, of course, educational funding varies widely from state to state and district to district, and colleges of education are the preeminent arbiters of teacher training standards. But challenges like these make it all the more important that superintendents and their boards engage in intensive strategic brainstorming to come up with ways to meet the human resource challenge in the face of these constraints.
I’m keenly aware that my Ethiopian classroom experience decades ago isn’t directly pertinent to filling teacher slots in American classrooms today, but you might be interested in two of the factors that made teaching so exciting and deeply satisfying to me and my faculty colleagues at Tafari Makonnen School in the days of Emperor Haile Selassie. And it’s important to note that superintendents and their boards can definitely influence both factors. First and foremost, we were driven by a compelling mission – often articulated by the TMS administration – that imbued our work in the classroom with real meaning and a sense of drama. It was tremendously energizing to know that our teaching would make a real difference in our students’ lives – indeed, was the indispensable key to their future well-being. Second, we teachers were treated as active collaborators with the Tafari Makonnen administration in the educational enterprise, rather than being the “we” to their “they.” Our ideas about improving student performance were taken very seriously, and we were strongly encouraged to experiment in the classroom. For example, with strong administrative backing we were able to conduct an experiment that significantly boosted performance among seriously underperforming ninth grade students in our history, English, and biology classes by grouping them in a special class that received the kind of close (team teaching) attention not possible in our thirty-student mainstream classes. Although the special class wasn’t continued after our one-year experiment, we learned valuable lessons about reaching underachievers that we were able to apply in our mainstream classes.
It would be great to hear how our readers have responded to this classic leadership challenge in their districts.