Teachers Want to Lead the Transformation of their Profession

“Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility:  To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

— President Barack Obama, January 24, 2012, “State of the Union”

Tuesday night President Barack Obama said what many teachers in America have been yearning to hear from their president: teachers matter, we change lives, and we do this hard work to make a difference in the lives of students.

He also acknowledged what every good teacher knows: that an accountability system that puts too much emphasis on test scores undermines a well-rounded education. But implicit in his speech was a challenge to America and to teachers to rebuild and strengthen the profession – a challenge that teachers are more than eager to accept.

As 2011 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we have heard from many teachers that the field has lost its luster. In our role as Teaching Ambassadors, we have talked with teachers in many groups, and we have heard real despondency over the constraints of NCLB that have caused schools to focus on testing and teacher evaluation in ways that are oppressive and rob our profession of much of the joy of teaching and learning.

We’ve listened to countless stories about a law that has raised standards without providing support for schools to meet them. And we have cringed when some of our most effective colleagues acknowledged that they can no longer afford to stay in a difficult profession that asks so much of them but barely affords a middleclass lifestyle. “We didn’t get into teaching to be millionaires,” they say, “but we have to be able to feed our families.”

What we like about the President’s speech is not that he acknowledges our grievances though, admittedly, it feels good to be heard. What appeals to us is that the President understands that as a country we must do much more than simply tweak a structure that is not working. Educators want to lead the transformation and rebuilding of teaching so that our work improves students’ lives and restores pride in our profession.

Teachers welcome this transformation. Neither students nor teachers are served by a structure that treats some teachers like interchangeable cogs in a machine. We long to lead our own profession because when we drive our craft, we will see huge shifts in the responsibility, leadership, pay and respect. As NEA President Dennis Van Roekel describes in the NEA’s December 8, 2011 Action Agenda to Strengthen Teaching, “The true essence” of our work “is putting teachers in charge of the quality of their profession.”

What would teachers do if they ran the schools? We would raise the bar for membership in our profession, recruiting the best candidates and insisting that teacher preparation programs become more rigorous and relevant. About 62 percent of all new teachers—almost two-thirds—report they felt unprepared for the realities of their classroom. As Secretary Duncan has said, “Imagine what our country would do if 62 percent of our doctors felt unprepared to practice medicine—you would have a revolution in our medical schools.”

A transformed profession would give teachers much more responsibility and flexibility to make decisions that meet their students’ educational needs–allowing access to and training with technology, shifting class sizes, and restructuring the school day so that they have time to collaborate with colleagues and engage in professional learning and problem-solving.

We would offer teachers a professional salary and career pathways that acknowledge their skill and commitment in one of the most complex, demanding, and important jobs in the world. We would insist on great school leaders, with principals who have high expectations, develop all teachers as lifelong learners, and create positive school cultures where students and teachers succeed.

As the President acknowledged, teachers are creative and passionate. But like workers in many other professions, we expect to be held accountable for results. We yearn to help create fair and thorough teacher evaluation systems and have access to data to make informed decisions about what is working and what isn’t, to direct our professional learning, and to help decide who stays in our profession. President Obama was right when he said, “That is a bargain worth making.”

Now more than ever, teachers long to lead their profession so that we finally resolve the important educational challenges in this country. A quarter of our children fail to finish high school on time and barely four in ten earn any type of post-secondary degree. For children of color, outcomes are even worse. When we see the statistics–that 7,000 students drop out of school every day–we feel pain for those teens and shame and guilt that we were not able to prevent this tragedy.

On top of that, school districts are getting ready to slam into an awful reality, that before the end of the decade, more than a million Baby Boomer teachers—fully a third of America’s teachers–will retire or leave the teaching profession. To recruit and retain the best teachers, we need to offer rewarding jobs and competitive salaries.

We were especially pleased to read in the Blueprint for an America Built to Last, released yesterday with the speech transcript, that the President plans to ask Congress for funding that will “challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to reform the entire teaching profession – from training and licensing to compensation, career ladders and tenure.”

Educators want to take on this work. As highly skilled specialists, we are not afraid of owning our profession. We are not afraid of being held accountable for results when we are given the responsibility and flexibility to craft our profession. We are confident that the President understands what it will take to transform teaching to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and we are eager to join with our colleagues across the country in moving the profession forward.

2011 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows Geneviève DeBose, Claire Jellinek, Greg Mullenholz, Shakera Walker, and Maryann Woods-Murphy.


  1. Why is it that the biggest factor in a child’s success is always left out of the equation and never up for a national discussion on education… that’s right, a child’s bio parents must be held accountable for their offspring. Public employees cannot and should not be raising children. The two people that are responsible for a child being in the world should not be allowed to pass off their obligations on public employees. Send a child to school well rested and ready to learn having been taught to respect authority, themselves, others and the learning process and we will see a huge change in schools across America. I feel like class room behavior is the dirty little secret that every teacher deals with but no one wants to talk about. Where are the honest surveys that ask teachers why they leave the profession? I’m guessing classroom management would be at the top of the list.
    I’d love to hear a discussion on this topic.

  2. Every time there is a national discussion regarding education, teachers, administrators, politicians, health care workers, law enforcement and others are asked to take the responsibility of raising America’s children. Always left out of the equation? Parents. What stake are parents obligated to have in their children’s education? What are parents being required to do? What responsibility are they shouldering? Too often our students come to school tired, hungry and without the basic social skills that will help them succeed, such as respect for authority, themselves and others. Why do parents get a pass to abdicate any responsibility for the children that they brought into the world? Fix the family and we will be going down the right path to fixing our schools. Discuss…

  3. The art of teaching has become more demanding and complex. This is due to a change in the needs and attitudes of our stakeholders (students and parents), the demands of the 21st century (college and career ready), and the new challenges due to advances in technology. In order to prepare all of our students to be ready for life after high school, we need highly qualified teachers at the helm. In order for this to happen, we have to recruit the best and the brightest to enter our profession, and we need to compensate them well in order to keep them in our schools.
    With higher expectations and the increasing demands for accountability, it is time to shift the entire teaching paradigm if we want to reach both of these goals. Perhaps we are ready for a non graded system where students progress based on the skills they acquire rather than the “grades” they make. We should think about accountability for teachers and students in a positive way, rather than something that is threatening and punitive. To me, the problem is a total contradiction: we want to prepare students for a future requiring problem solving, a sense of ethics, a team attitude, a process over product approach. Our graduates need strong oral and written communication skills, an ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate. They need to be reflective practitioners. But we continue to assess these skills with standardized, multiple choice tests–and these tests certainly don’t evaluate a teacher’s efficacy. How can we create the assessments we need to measure student growth in these areas? How do we provide the training for young people who can take on this demanding job? Teachers can step up and be a part of this dynamic reform!

    Change the model, change the career, change the expectations, and change the nation.

  4. Lets all get real. This is the facts. There are teachers out there… Maby a hand full what ever. Those teachers should not be in the class. There are many teachers that can do a better job.. But they are covered by Tenure. They are not going any were. NO OTHER JOB has Tenure. I know teachers that are amazing and some that are good, but there are others that just shouldn’t be teachers.

    • I think it is time to blame administration for tenuring people who are not deserving. THAT is their responsibility not teachers. They ALSO are responsible for following through the due process to remove those that are not adequate. There are systems in place to protect the quality of our work but we are not repsonsible for that piece of the puzzle. If admin did their job, we would see less of the ‘bad’ ones continuing to give tenure a bad name, the professional a blemish and strengthen the public’s trust in the system.

  5. When I heard the above quote from the union address, I was absolutely livid because I feel betrayed by Obama and his buddy Arnie due to the testing based, union busting Race to the Top fraud, which has only served to reinforce the worst of NCLB, or as I call it ETLB, Every Teacher Left Behind.

    I’ve worked at a school on probation for the past four years and I’ve watched student after student and teacher after teacher leave my school due to draconian expectations solely based upon making AYP. Teaching is more than training students to jump through test bubble hoops using rigid, fidelity to the curriculum. This is what NCLB and Race to the Top has spawned in my school and across Chicago.

  6. I too was buoyed by the remarks made by President Obama relative to the education profession. I think most critical was his understanding of the need to give the profession professional status. To me that means we must transform our view of who is encouraged to consider the profession. Requirements must include students who demonstrate an intellectual and cognitive capacity to acquire professional knowledge that includes understanding theories of intelligence, child and adolescent development, curriculum and the vital role it plays in shaping learner outcomes, and instructional pedagogy that is dynamic, researched based and aligned with learning theories. The development of professional educators requires a raising of the bar and more rigorous expectations during preservice training. Teachers can no longer be trained under the archaic models that shaped the foundations of early American Public education when teachers were expected to follow manuals. Too many of today’s classroom harken back to these times. We see teachers following district mandates and not applying professional knowledge in their classroom.
    The Fellows represent some of the best professionals in our field. Their voices should be heard in the critical settings where teacher training reform is being considered. Skilled and highly effective educators who have credibility must remain center to the vital conversations about transformation! Thanks for your response to the State of the Union!

  7. I am very encouraged by all of the conversation that’s been happening for the past few years around education. I really hope that change will occur though!

    Those of us who teach, all know that one teacher that should have retired years ago that is still “waiting it out” (really to the detriment of our kids) or that teacher who is not effectively teaching (due to a host of reasons) that needs to go. It’s unfortunate because it is the students who are sitting in front of him/her who are suffering on a daily basis.

    If teachers could truly lead the transformation in education, then that would be when the field is really overhauled and achievement is truly steering the field!

  8. If this is so good, why do we have to wait so long to get it implemented. What is the hold up? These changes should be implemented immediately, THE CURRENT SCHOOL YEAR. Waiting will only prolong and increase the problem.

  9. Just let good teachers teach.

    Eliminate the obstructions like the U.S. Department of Education, the state departments of education, the politics of school districts, Praxis and testing companies, wrong-headed workshops at universities and anything else that is an impediment to real learning.

  10. I agree with the points in the blog post but must admit that I am most excited about “giving schools flexibility.” I think that the public school system has been crippled by bureaucracy that prevents individual schools from making the changes they need to be successful. This bureaucracy also negates accountability systems by giving the schools scape goats; ineffective teachers blame prescriptive curriculum and school leadership, then ineffective leaders blame a system that limits their ability to act. Teachers are the key to changing educational outcomes for all students, however effective school leadership is the key to creating the environment in which those teachers can be most effective. We can transform schools by giving them greater autonomy.

  11. Hello, here in Hawaii we won the RTTT money. Our state government is ready to move forward with reforms, but the contract the state and union proposed to us does not explain evaluations. It was subsequently voted down.

    Is there an evaluation? Are we using the Danielson model? Are states creating their own? How can I sign a contract with unclear terms?

  12. I like the idea that a transformed profession would give teachers both more flexibility (or autonomy) in exchange for increased accountability. Kudos the USED Fellows for voicing bold ideas!

  13. “Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” Pres. Obama.

    Well, folks, we taxpayers already “give them the resources”, the problem is they are squandered by the bureaucracy. In my state, Washington, only 57% of the money (on a per-student basis) given to the K-12 system by the legislature reaches the classroom. The rest is swallowed up in non-teaching functions, including a layered bureaucracy that micro-manages the schools and classrooms, thus justifying their high-paid existence. Principals can’t be principals. If that doesn’t change, nothing of significance will change. btw, that contrasts with private and parochial schools where upwards of 85% of the money reaches the classroom. Stated another way, there is one quarter (25 percentage points) of education’s dollars available to pay good teachers more, etc., IF the bureaucracy is radically reformed and leaned down. Doing that, combined with the ideas in the above blog, might help improve our miserable public school performance.

    However, even doing this, helpful as it could be, is just an ameliorative answer to the real problem, which is brain impairment from poor initial developmental conditions. Since the vast majority of the brain’s intelligence CAPACITY is formed by age three, what the schools do is to try to make up for poor initial conditions. Kindergarten teachers can already see the students who come from stimulus-poor environments compared to those who come from stimulus-rich environments. The former are the failures and dropouts of tomorrow.

    What is really needed is a new “Manhattan Project” beginning in utero and continuing through grade 3 to significantly raise the capacity of the human brain to function and learn. That would have a similar effect on our society as the GI Bill did, raising the educational attainment of the whole culture in one generation. I have no hope that such will happen in my lifetime, if ever.


  14. Teachers must be passionate about what they have chosen to teach as a profession in order to be an effective educator. The learning that occurs when an individual acquires or modifies their existing knowledge increases when the passion promotes creativity in the presentation of a subject matter. Teachers with no passion for any project-based learning can limit learning to our diverse student population.

    • Joyce, you sound as if there are many teachers out there without any passion. I would like to tell you, I’ve been in the profession for over 13 years and I can honestly say, I have met probably a handful of teachers that I would say, should not be teaching. I truly feel honored to be in this profession. ALL of the teachers I am surrounded by go above and beyond, are the best, are passionate, make me want to be better, and truly set the bar very high, indeed.

      • Patty, its true we do have more effective teachers then ineffective. I was a teacher for over 15 years until the administration decided funding or lack thereof was more important than the students receiving training for the workforce of the future. I was told by an administrator that my lessons where to “project based”, this was in 2008. My lesson plans for a semester involved wind turbines as the primary energy source to homes. Students at various levels contributed to the assignment. The students designed, constructed 3D models of the designs, created and named subdivision, and used original specifications for the design, construction, and location of wind turbines. I really enjoyed being a creative “project-based” teacher, because students really enjoyed learning.
        It brings tears to my eyes hearing teachers express joy and commitment in doing their jobs. I enjoyed the look on a student’s face being able to seeing what they had learned. Give students a chance to be creative, while at the same time learn a skill, from preforming math computations to design a floor plan to applying the principles of aerodynamics to design and construct an aeronautical vehicle such as a water rocket. Teachers continue what you are doing with passion.
        Not all the talk about raising standards means you will have better teachers. Teachers are born not breed! Training to be an educator is a requirement, but it should also be a natural instinct from within. Do not pursue or be influenced by the monetary gains of jobs, careers, and professions, instead choice job satisfaction, the innovation of administrators, and employee camaraderie that will produce life-long learning experiences for our diverse student population.
        Teach students in the way that demonstrates their passions and their skills, as in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) curriculum. Every secondary school graduate should be required to take CTE classes, starting at the elementary level. CTE has science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
        If you have never had the exposure, you will not know the existence. Students need multiple career choices because teachers train the future. Make sure students know a job exists for their passion and if it does not exist, be a Steve Jobs, and create your own. Please remember CTE is the grout for all the core subjects and if you did not know that ask the CTE teacher in a local school.
        “Teachers rule the world”

        • Amen Joyce!
          When will we learn that motivation, especially at the high school, level needs to be a part of what we offer.
          We need to inspire and explain WHY education is valuable. Most teens tune out before we even get to express our passion!
          As a high school teacher, I became so concerned with our lack of concrete efforts system wide to address the WHY of education for our kids, which sparks the motivation, which then drive the product of a student’s education…ultimately… a JOB/Career.
          Our model is too outdated. I started trying to help students bridge the gap between what basic school course requirements and the REAL world changes going on around them to create real purpose for students to engage in building their minds. We
          all talk about tests, knowledge, college, competition, etc but WHERE in a student’s day do they get to think about these things? Where are they guided to find their purpose.
          Many might think we shouldn’t have to do these things for kids. Our job is to teach math, science, etc. but that model isn’t working with modern kids. We can’t continue to ignore that students of today are being taught like students of the past. We keep expecting them to toe the line and follow blindly, trusting the process like previous generations.
          I started looking for better ways ten years ago, as a teacher and as a widowed mother with 3 of my own beginning to face the daunting task of transitioning into 21st century adulthood.
          Over the decade what developed is a workbook project (and course at my school) that takes teens on a journey of self-discovery and reality checks around what it takes to be a successful adult. The goal is to create their own motivation for learning and graduating. THEN they walk through life’s major decisions like college/career/employability skills, etc.
          ALL of this while building independent reading skills.
          It’s called Get totally Real! The saddest part is I rarely talk about it outside my school because I fear the
          impression people might get that I am trying to make money off of kids.
          It may not be the magic bullet, but I got tired of waiting through all the talking and talking and talking that’s going on around education. Everyone knows there’s a crisis but few on the ground, do right now, options exist.
          While that happens we really are losing an entire generation to apathy.

  15. “We would raise the bar for membership in our profession, recruiting the best candidates and insisting that teacher preparation programs become more rigorous and relevant…We would offer teachers a professional salary and career pathways that acknowledge their skill and commitment in one of the most complex, demanding, and important jobs in the world. We would insist on great school leaders, with principals who have high expectations, develop all teachers as lifelong learners, and create positive school cultures where students and teachers succeed.”

    Love this part. So, so true! We need actual, current classroom teachers to lead these conversations. I hope your writing inspires more teachers to take the helm on these kinds of policies.

  16. I absolutely enjoyed the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, January 24, 2012. As an educator, I strongly believe that it’s imperative for us to focus on the academic development of the student, rather than focusing on the “teach to test” method, which is so commonly being used in many of our schools today. President Obama’s speech gave me and even greater hope for our children’s future, as well as inspired me to never stop teaching from the passion and love I have in my heart to see our children learn and grow in their endeavors in life. I look forward to a bright future for our children as well as my own children, here in the United States of America!

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