Field of Teams

By

Brent Maddin

Brent Maddin is executive director of the Next Education Workforce initiative at ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

On an unseasonably brisk mid-May afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, nearly 100 people sat at tables playing with unusual baseball cards.

While the cards lacked player names, they did have position names. And there were a lot more than nine positions. In fact, there were more than 30. There was no shortstop or left fielder. But there was a “Teacher, Science” and a “Teacher, Media Arts.” There were cards for receptionists and principals, custodians and math coaches. The deck of cards contained roles for paraprofessionals, experienced teachers, and teaching novices. Instead of batting averages, cards indicated whether a role required certification and how many years of relevant experience the person filling that role had.

We asked participants to not simply reshuffle the deck but rather to fundamentally rethink how this group of educators could be deployed to better meet student needs. In fact, we even provided blank cards so that they could bring in completely new types of educators not currently working in most schools.

Who was playing this game?

A cross-sector group of nearly 100 practitioners and leaders from K-12 schools and districts, higher education, education nonprofits, school design, philanthropy, and policy came together at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Why were we playing it?

It was part of a two-day convening during which we tried to ask and answer the right questions about The Next Education Workforce. Ultimately, the biggest question is this: How can we provide better educational experiences to learners and better professional experiences to educators?

What if we’ve got it all wrong?

For nearly the last two decades, I’ve sweated every detail about how best to prepare new teachers.

And for nearly the last two decades, I’ve seen most of those whom I helped prepare leave the profession. Fewer people are interested in becoming teachers and, for the first time since it began polling in 1969, the PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools found a majority of parents answered “no” when asked, “Would you like to have your child take up teaching in a public school?”

About two years ago, I started asking the question: “What if we’re sending new teachers into a workforce that doesn’t make sense?”

I’ve come to worry that no amount of screw-tightening on traditional models of teacher preparation will make much of a difference if the challenge isn’t fundamentally one of preparation, but rather a flaw in how we’ve defined the role of “teacher.”

The job of being a teacher is difficult in specific ways that negatively affect both job satisfaction and job performance. Of course pay matters. But the challenges go deeper than that.

Too often, in too many schools, the job of being a teacher looks remarkably similar whether it’s your first day or your 10,000th day. That’s troubling on two fronts: first, the job is wildly too complicated for most rookie teachers to perform well; second, a profession that looks the same on day 10,000 as it does on day one isn’t offering pathways for professional growth and advancement. That’s a recipe for burnout and attrition.

And then there’s the fact that we ask almost all teachers to be content experts and professional pedagogues; to assess children with learning disabilities and provide differentiated experiences to advanced students; to be role models and social workers.

In no other profession is it deemed reasonable to ask all things of all people. We don’t ask supply chain specialists to be experts in social media analytics, or general surgeons to be anesthesiologists. We shouldn’t expect every educator to be all things to all people at all times.

But here’s the rub: As a parent of two school-aged kids, there isn’t a competency in the list of 174 InTASC indicators for professional teachers at which I wouldn’t my kids’ teachers to excel. In fact, if given the chance, I would add a few things to the list.

So, what if we unpacked all the things we currently ask each teacher to be and do and spread those things out, sustainably, among a team of educators?

Designing a team-based model

Eighteen months ago, I came to Arizona State University to lead the Educator Workforce Initiative at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. In close partnership with K-12 schools, we seek to design, prototype, and field an educator workforce that has distributed expertise, is team-based, and prioritizes personalization for both students and educators.

During this time, we have iterated on what we think of as a continuum of educator roles that, for now, has three broad bands:

Educational Leaders:

We need to create leadership roles and offer outstanding educators career advancement that does not necessarily remove them from instructional roles and direct contact with learners.

That means a cadre of teacher-leaders whose responsibilities require both instructional expertise and management acumen as they direct the work of teams.

We also need organization leaders who champion the value of teams, who know how to build and manage systems, and who can empower teacher-leaders.

Professional Educators:

We need to attract and develop novice educators and put them in positions to succeed.

Gone should be the day where a first-day teacher is singularly responsible for a class of students. First-year educators should be exposed to more and solely responsible for less. That means deploying them in teams where they can work with and learn from experienced colleagues.

We need to create meaningful opportunities for experienced teachers to develop their craft, advance in their careers, and enter the educational leadership band mentioned above. That means developing deep specializations and/or taking on additional leadership responsibilities, including team management.

Community Educators:

Our communities are rich in experienced adults who have knowledge and expertise but may lack the instructional skills of career teachers. Let’s figure out how to intentionally integrate them into learning environments and train them.

Community educators should not be one-day volunteers or guests. Instead, they should be crucial complements to professional educators. Some could play instructional roles. Others would provide more wrap-around services that address the needs of the whole child.

Taken together, these three broad bands of educator roles might look something like this:

Chart of educator roles

To be sure, many of these roles exist in current K-12 schools. However, the key innovation resides in how we could bring these educators together as members of teams around specific groups of students.

A lead teacher would manage each team and have the authority to adjust instructional time, learning space, and how the team is deployed to ensure that each student receives the best education possible.

The team would be responsible for the growth of all students. They would identify personal passions and strengths — and teach to them. Individuals would specialize. Schools would hire differently, finding people to fill particular needs. And, like most other professionals, educators would be able to use the restroom when they need to.

The discrete elements of this model are not new.

Team teaching has been around for decades. Many people have long thought deeply about how to personalize or individualize instruction. And the paucity of career paths in schools has long been a subject of discussion, research, and debate.

But maybe the synthesis is new. And maybe the time is right.

Moving from design to action

For the last year, we’ve been working with a handful of schools and districts across the Phoenix Metro area as they explore new ways of thinking about and deploying their educators.

Many of the people involved in this work were among those trying to design effective teams of educators with baseball cards. In fact, the deck of cards, with names redacted, was based on the actual staff of one of our partner schools.

Conversations at the convening have since grown into new collaborations across Phoenix and the nation The biggest piece of feedback? “Can we do this again? And visit schools?” This answer is most decidedly, “Yes!”

Did we figure it all out? Of course not. For me, the power of the event was what I learned from those who attended.

Specifically:

  • There is palpable desire among a wide range of participants to find more opportunities for innovative leaders to step out of their comfort zones to address the problems schools face.
  • We need more use cases of teams working at different age levels, in different communities, and within a range of budgetary constraints. We need to better understand how these models perform in real contexts.
  • To make that happen, we have to address in good faith a set of real and perceived hurdles:

– District-level financial and human resource models
– Normative and not always accurate or useful assumptions about how teaching and learning happen
– State policies that range from irrelevant to harmful; especially those that constrain innovative educational leaders

The people engaged in this work are acutely aware that we will not succeed if it is confined to professional educators and academics. This is the work of all concerned with improving education for the greatest possible number of learners: schools; universities; business and community organizations; policymakers; parents. All of us. And it will require deep collaboration among individuals and institutions.

And it will require a deep appreciation that context matters. What works in one school or community might not work in another. We see power in amplifying the inspiring work of our partners — not as prescription, but as inspiration.

With the convening in the rearview mirror, I’m optimistic. Perhaps the convergence of a sense of urgency, advances in educational technology, and a movement of education issues back toward the center of public argument herald a new era of systemic innovation.

That’s what we need. Because this isn’t a game played with cards.