Career Pathways Are Key to Keeping, Retaining Teachers

By Jessica Tyson

A few weeks ago in the copy room I found another teacher’s original, mistakenly left behind on the copier. Snooping a little bit, I was startled and then delighted by what I found when I examined the paper.

It wasn’t an inherently surprising piece of paper. It was just a rubric, the kind teachers everywhere provide to students to help guide them in their work. This particular rubric was for an 11th-grade English assignment. Although I also teach English, at the large high school where I work I don’t have occasion to collaborate with the teacher who wrote this assignment at all; in fact, we hardly even see each other in the hallways.

The startling part, therefore, was that he was using my words in his assignment. Like me, he divided the writing rubric into Argument and Analysis, Evidence, Organization, and Language. Like me, he characterized an A-level paper as one that “presents a clear, precise, and complex argument, sustained throughout the piece by careful and thorough analysis of the evidence provided.”

Like many teachers, I have worked and reworked my rubric descriptions dozens of times, refining them each time I give an assignment. My rubric language is something I’m proud of; it comes out of years of development of my own beliefs about good writing. Though based on the ideas of many who came before me, at this point it is very much my own.

Despite my pride in my rubrics, this is not a story about intellectual property battles. Because my rubric reflects my values, I was delighted to see it being used beyond my classroom, embedded in another teacher’s assignment. However, considering the circuitous path my words must have taken to reach this teacher with whom I’ve never had the chance to collaborate (likely a chain of sharing assignments that was passed up the grades from my 9th-grade classroom), I began to reflect on why it was so unusual for me to see my work extend beyond my room.

It shouldn’t be that way. It should be completely natural for me to see my work connected to the work of others. After all, reflective and thoughtful educators spend hours outside of their teaching days thinking about our practice, revising and refining. It would make sense for us to be able to share that work with our colleagues. In fact, I believe that better student outcomes are directly related to increased teacher collaboration.

It is true that many teachers have thought partners and collaborative colleagues; the rise of Professional Learning Communities (site-based or virtual) and the popularity of lesson study have increased the amount of professional collaboration available to educators. These experiences provide many educators with the opportunity to share best practices (and rubrics!) and therefore increase their impact.

However, teachers too often remain siloed in their classrooms. An additional challenge of these collaboration opportunities is that they are often “add-ons,” sometimes stipended, sometimes not, but usually in addition to the hours teachers already work. A teacher who finds these opportunities meaningful is therefore confronted, at some point, with an ironic reality: the collaborative work that energizes our practice and ultimately results in better outcomes for students must be juggled in a zero-sum game with the individual work necessary to keep a classroom functioning.

I see an opportunity to remedy this situation in the establishment of clearly defined and institutionalized career pathways in Oakland Unified. As a GO teacher policy fellow, I’ve studied career pathways in several different places, including San Jose Unified, D.C. Public Schools, and Baltimore Public Schools. OUSD is developing a proposal for a “Teacher Career Lattice.” Though the language is currently broad, its authors state goals that I share. Through expanding and diversifying professional roles available to teachers, they aim to retain more teachers and to build more leaders. They say that “a meaningful career lattice” should allow “great teachers to expand their reach to more students and colleagues through coaching and other leadership opportunities.” In addition, they want to “increase the impact of effective teachers.”

I know from extensive experience with the Bay Area Writing Project, the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project, Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age, and other professional learning communities that the best way to increase the impact of effective teachers is to make sure they can work with other teachers. Therefore, a new career “lattice” should include hybrid roles that allow teachers to keep one foot in the classroom while also enjoying increased collaboration time with colleagues, through clearly defined teacher leader roles and coaching positions.

Hopefully, OUSD’s plan for expanded career pathways will mean that finding my rubric on someone else’s assignment (and vice versa!) will become commonplace. A “lattice” of career possibilities centered on intentional collaboration could mean that teachers share best practices and values directly, resulting in better teaching and better learning.

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