It’s time to reimagine the teaching job.
The world, and the workplace, has undergone radical change in the past sixty years. By 2020, collaboration and flexibility had become hallmarks of the most progressive American workplaces—but the core job of an American teacher remains stubbornly antiquated.
Too often, teaching remains an isolated, one-size-fits-all job that requires each educator to “do it all.” The result: a job that does not reflect the demands of the next-generation workforce, with teacher turnover that undermines our ability to provide consistent access to high-quality teaching for all students, particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
In contrast, teaching should be a dynamic, rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable profession, with a diverse force of educators who have the support and guidance they need to have the greatest positive impact on student learning and well-being.
It’s going to take more than incremental change to reimagine the teaching job. Reimagining the teaching job demands that we challenge core assumptions about how we organize people, time, and money in American public schools. With inspiring new models and do-able strategies, leaders can strategically construct expert-led teaching teams; boost on-ramps into the profession; improve how teachers are assigned, supported, and paid; and create pathways for the most effective educators to deepen their impact without leaving the classroom.
An illustration of what the teacher experience looks like now for many teachers, and what it could look like instead by making teaching a more dynamic, rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable profession.
As the COVID pandemic has led many Americans to reevaluate the status quo and expand their sense of possibility about new ways to organize work, it’s time to reimagine the antiquated construction of the teaching job. Teaching should be a dynamic, rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable profession with a diverse teaching force that enables all educators to have the greatest positive impact on student learning and well-being. Reimagining the teaching job to realize this vision would fundamentally change the experience of teachers while creating a stronger, more resilient context for excellent teaching and learning that benefits all students.
The shifts required to achieve this vision are significant—moving from isolated work to team-based models with expert support; ensuring all teachers have sustainable workloads; providing job-embedded, not one-off, professional learning experiences; adjusting compensation systems to allow for differentiated pay based on differentiated roles and responsibilities; and more. These shifts also have the potential to radically improve the experience of individual teachers at all stages of their careers.
Expand the drawers to learn about improving the experience for new, mid-career, and experienced teachers.
Current Experience: Overwhelmed and unsupported
Alex is a first-year teacher who recently graduated from a traditional teacher prep program at an undergraduate university. The program included some time for Alex to observe teachers and teach summer school, but very limited coaching and support on Alex’s instructional practice. Now a 3rd grade teacher, Alex is leading a large group of students solo for the first time.
Blake, another first-year teacher, teaches the other 3rd grade class, across the hall from Alex—a result of the school’s high turnover that has left a rotating cycle of teachers on the 3rd grade team. Blake recently earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification after serving as a paraprofessional for many years. Blake is proud of this accomplishment but is also regularly stressed about paying off student loan debt and has taken on a second job during some evenings and on the weekend.
Both teachers are feeling overwhelmed by having to plan lessons for all content areas. Alex feels good about ELA planning but struggles with math. Blake appears to be doing well with math instruction but is operating without a deep understanding of the 3rd grade math standards. Alex and Blake spend hours cobbling together lessons from ideas they find online, working together during their shared prep period and after school, but they typically leave those conversations with more questions than answers. Alex’s mentor teacher is a 1st grade teacher in the same school, while Blake’s mentor teaches 3rd grade across town; each has the opportunity to meet their mentor once every few weeks before or after school.
By January, both Alex and Blake are feeling burnt out and discouraged—just in time for the first formal classroom observations by the school’s principal, which are the first observations of any kind that either of these rookie teachers has experienced this year.
Overall, Alex feels like a failure and is questioning the decision to be a teacher at all. Blake is finding it difficult to envision sustaining a career in teaching while working a second job, leading to questions about whether or not to return next year.
A Reimagined Experience: Effective and supported
Alex recently graduated from a traditional teacher prep program with significant clinical practice. Alex’s experience included working as a student teacher in 1st grade, leading instruction, and both observing and being observed by a mentor teacher and an instructional coach with deep expertise in the curriculum Alex was teaching. Even though 3rd grade is new, Alex feels confident about having a baseline of classroom management skills and instructional expertise to build on.
Blake participated in the district’s para-to-teacher development program, which provided tuition assistance, teacher licensure support, and a partnership with a local university to create an accelerated pathway into teaching. Rather than assign both rookies to the same grade level, the school’s principal has placed Blake on the 2nd grade team; both Alex and Blake are paired with an experienced teacher in their respective grade levels.
Because the district provides highly detailed, engaging, and rigorous curricular materials, both Alex and Blake can focus their time on developing a deep understanding of the standards and adapting materials for their students, rather than creating lessons from scratch. They each split lesson planning responsibilities with their more experienced grade-level teammates, with ample weekly collaborative planning time to discuss their plans, review student work, and adapt their approaches based on student needs. On the 3rd grade team, Alex focuses on lesson planning for ELA and social studies, which are areas of strength, while the other more experienced teacher focuses on lesson planning for math and science.
The 2nd and 3rd grade educators operate as a team, including both rookie teachers (Alex and Blake), both of the more experienced teachers, and a teacher resident. Blake’s more senior colleague serves as the team leader and has a mix of teaching and coaching responsibilities, including leading bi-weekly collaboration blocks among all five educators. The teacher resident is paired with the team leader and has opportunities to both observe and lead instruction, including when the team leader is observing and modeling instruction in Alex’s or Blake’s classroom.
While their first year teaching wasn’t easy, both Alex and Blake finish the year strong and are excited to build on their successes in the year ahead.
Having demonstrated their effectiveness and impact on student learning, both Alex and Blake qualify for a meaningful pay increase next year, thanks to a compensation system that is designed to ensure rookie teachers have the stability they need to get their careers off to a strong start. Most importantly, both Alex and Blake can see direct evidence of the impact each of them has had on their students, who will be thrilled to see a familiar—and confident—face when they return to school in the fall.
Current Experience: Overextended and isolated
Charlie is a consistently and highly effective math teacher in one of the district’s highest-poverty high schools, which is currently in turnaround status. Over an eight-year career, Charlie has taught several different math courses in two different high schools and has become particularly skilled at scaffolding math content so that all students can reach grade-level standards. Based on this expertise and track record, Charlie was recruited by the principal and asked to lead a new math tutoring program, which comes with a small stipend in addition to Charlie’s eighth year teacher salary.
That teaching schedule includes a course load that is typical for the school—five sections of math in a seven-period day. Each of Charlie’s three 9th grade algebra sections include 32 students and are the largest classes in the school. Charlie also teaches two sections of 10th grade geometry, with 24 students per section, giving Charlie a total of 144 students.
Charlie has one independent non-teaching period per day to review student work and plan lessons for each math course. However, as the school prioritizes direct outreach to families to address low attendance and chronic absenteeism, Charlie spends a significant amount of planning time calling families about absent students. Sometimes Charlie seeks out another math teacher to bounce a new lesson plan idea off of, but only one—who teaches mostly 11th and 12th grade—is available when Charlie is. As a result, Charlie spends planning periods working alone, with little opportunity to talk to other teachers.
Charlie feels increasingly isolated in their job.
Charlie’s evenings are devoted to catching up on the lesson planning and grading. Charlie had hoped to focus on making the after-school tutoring program an engine for student growth that would pay off during core classes, but has had little time to for the creative thinking and planning required to do so. As the year unfolds, Charlie is considering switching back to their former school next year or, if a position isn’t available, perhaps shifting to a role coaching other math teachers. But with a passion for teaching math and a desire to see the tutoring program have more impact, Charlie is concerned that either of those moves would limit opportunities to do the work they love most.
A Reimagined Experience: Focused and invigorated
When Charlie was asked to move to the turnaround school, it was clear that the role would entail a mix of teaching in a high-need subject and building out the new tutoring model to serve as an extension of classroom learning. To make it feasible, Charlie was assigned a reduced teaching load—four sections of 9th grade algebra, each with 24 students, for a total of 96 students. This simplifies lesson planning and enables Charlie to better know both the academic needs and life context of each student. With an extra non-teaching period, Charlie is able to directly support the school’s team of tutors, staffed by paraprofessionals and students at the local university’s education program. Charlie’s salary has been adjusted to recognize their work taking on a high-priority grade and subject and their leadership of the tutoring program, which is a centerpiece of the school’s turnaround strategy.
Charlie spends independent planning periods reviewing student work, analyzing student data, and adapting lesson plans. Charlie, other 9th grade teachers, and support staff have weekly shared-student team meetings in which they discuss academic and non-academic needs of their 9th grade students. In this time Charlie is able to connect with the school’s family engagement specialist to ensure they are both up to speed on what’s going on with a few students who have been missing class regularly; the specialist is responsible for communicating with families about attendance and other logistical and operational matters. One day each week Charlie has 90 minutes of collaborative planning time with the other Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 teachers, led by an instructional coach who is a former master Algebra teacher. Charlie has grown to enjoy the opportunity to share expertise, test new ideas with peers, and borrow some exciting strategies from the other Algebra teachers. Collaboration time also creates space for Charlie to share what’s planned for the tutoring block and ensure that each teacher’s students are set up to receive the support they need.
In some ways, Charlie’s job is more challenging than in their prior school—but it’s also more invigorating than ever. For the first time in years, Charlie feels they are making a bigger difference in their students’ lives and growing in new directions as a professional.
Just as important, Charlie is already thinking about how to build on this year’s successes by more deeply integrating core math instruction and tutoring support next year.
Current Experience: Stagnant and unsatisfied
Dominique is a middle school ELA teacher who has been teaching for 15 years. Without question, Dominique is an effective teacher who has helped hundreds of students develop critical thinking and writing skills while navigating their pre-adolescent years. Dominique is seen as an expert among other teachers and has been informally supporting them for years. As a result, Dominique was asked to serve as one of two teacher leaders in the middle school—a role they accepted in the hopes of stimulating their own professional growth by taking on a new challenge.
Dominique always seeks out challenges with new growth opportunities, but has reached a point where they feel that they are stagnating in their role. While Dominique enjoys sharing expertise with other teachers, the teacher leaders are mostly responsible for planning occasional staff-wide Professional Development sessions on broad topics that, while important, rarely come with ideas on how to apply new ideas in the classroom. Dominique is also assigned to observe and coach other ELA teachers; however, without additional time in their schedule, this work is squeezed in during lunch breaks and prep periods. Dominique is not sure how they are doing in their role as a teacher leader because there’s no clear description of responsibilities, they received minimal training or support, and they have so little time for the one-on-one peer support that Dominique believes is the way to have the most impact in this role.
Not only does Dominique feel that they are stagnating in their development, but their pay has stagnated as well.
Dominique receives annual pay increases based on a fixed salary schedule plus a $1,000 annual stipend for their teacher leader role. This year, Dominique is considering leaving teaching to become an Assistant Principal—for which she would earn a salary that would otherwise take her nearly ten more years in the classroom to achieve. While Dominique doesn’t want to leave the classroom, farther away from the students who are the source of energy and inspiration, this feels like the only way to take the “next step” in their career and earn more.
A Reimagined Experience: Energized and impactful
Dominique’s role as a teacher leader is part of a clear district-wide career ladder that emphasizes roles that include both teaching and leadership. There are three tiers of teacher leader roles, each with clear responsibilities and differentiated salary. Dominique is in the middle tier of teacher leadership, in which about half of their time is spent leading instruction across three sections of 25 students each.
Dominique also has significant release time to observe and provide feedback to grade 6-8 ELA teachers and plan for collaboration time. Dominique provides coaching for ELA teachers across grades 6, 7, and 8.
During the district’s Professional Development days, Dominique participates in professional learning sessions specifically designed for the district’s teacher leaders. Dominique’s principal regularly observes feedback meetings with teachers and the two meet regularly to discuss the progress of individual teachers and identify ways in which Dominique can best support the ELA teachers who need it most.
Dominique feels energized by their role as a teacher leader, which provides the opportunity to extend their impact across the school while still working directly with students. With a meaningful and well-compensated leadership role, Dominique feels respected and valued for the expertise they bring.
At the same time, the collaborative structure and nature of the work have fostered a positive team dynamic among ELA teachers and more broadly across the school. No longer feeling stuck in a rut, Dominque is excited about their role and deeply committed to their school, fellow educators and students.
Learn more about three different approaches to reorganizing people, time, and money in order to bring a new vision of the teaching job to life.
Kansas City Teacher Residency offers an affordable and accelerated pathway into teaching, using a cohort model to provide rich curriculum and coaching for aspiring teachers.
DC Public Schools launched a district-wide job-embedded professional learning strategy to support teacher development and pave the way for better student outcomes.
Whittier Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona shifted to a new model that uses teams of educators to provide deeper, personalized learning for students.
How system leaders can drive lasting change
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