The job of a teacher is changing (and it’s not why you think)

Every few years, someone claims that robots going to replace teachers. In the latest iteration of this trend, British education expert Anthony Seldon recently proclaimed that robots will be teaching our children by 2027. But seeing as only 3% of citizens surveyed think that robots should be used in education at all, much less exclusively, it doesn’t seem like teachers will have to bow to mechanical overlords any time soon.

That said, a teacher’s job in the classroom is changing and will have to change to improve the quality of education for both teachers and students. The model of the solitary, isolated teacher responsible for too wide a range of jobs is simply not sustainable—astronomically high rates of teacher stress, burnout, and turnover can attest to that.

The new frontier for teaching is collaboration, but before we can successfully implement a collaborative model, we first have to address the myriad roles of teachers today and the isolation that currently keeps teachers from meeting their full potential.

A Teacher’s Many Hats

In the high school classroom, you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, and the last straw.
— Frank McCourt, teacher and author of Angela’s Ashes

Although you might not do much tap dancing in your classroom, teaching today is undeniably complicated and multifaceted. A more literal interpretation of the above roles might include “surrogate parent, class disciplinarian, mentor, counselor, bookkeeper, role model, planner,” etc. A guide for high school teachers includes 25 different duties, all of which require different skill sets and strengths. Here are just a few:

  • Plan, prepare and deliver instructional activities. (By the way, delivering instruction alone requires over 30 hours per week on average)

  • Meet course and school-wide student performance goals.

  • Participate in ongoing training sessions.

  • Create lesson plans and modify accordingly throughout the year.

  • Grade papers and perform other administrative duties as needed.

  • Read and stay abreast of current topics in education.

  • Utilize curricula that reflect the diverse educational, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of the students served.

  • Establish and communicate clear objectives for all learning activities.

  • Observe and evaluate student's performance.

  • Manage student behavior in the classroom by invoking approved disciplinary procedures.

Arguably, although these duties alone might be overwhelming for a teacher, there are many important jobs that are left out of this list as well. One article on teacher effectiveness in the 21st century emphasizes that teachers need to prepare students for careers that have just been established and careers that don’t even exist yet. Since young people are increasingly likely to hold multiple careers over the course of their lifetimes, “teachers must plan to be facilitators who provide scaffolding to support students in developing their own personal ways of knowing and thinking” that will help them succeed in any possible occupation.

Another treatise on the role of modern teachers suggests that teachers are now expected to do the following in their classrooms:

  1. adopt new practices that acknowledge both the art and science of learning

  2. understand the deep and sacred relationship between teacher and child

  3. know each student as an individual person and learner

  4. help with social and emotional growth

  5. inspire in each child the love of learning

Looking at all of these lists together, it becomes clear that one teacher is expected, more and more, to provide personalized learning and form emotional and academic connections to every single one of their students, no matter how many.

A Brief History of Teaching

Many of these expectations placed on teachers are relatively new aspects of modern education. Historically, teaching was “a combination of information-dispensing, custodial child care and sorting out academically inclined students from others.”

The model for schools was not a garden where children, like flowers, were watered and allowed to grow at their own pace, but a factory “in which adults, paid hourly or daily wages, kept like-aged youngsters sitting still for standardized lessons and tests.”

As industrialization drew people into cities, philosophers like Adam Smith argued for broader formal schooling; after all, he concluded, “the more [people] are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition.” As formal schooling expanded and became less restricted to wealthy white males, reformers like Horace Mann had the vision for a universal school system in the United States, known as the “free school movement.” As the story goes, Mann visited Prussia and was inspired by their education system, which seemed to construct a strong sense of national identity among its citizens. He hoped that bringing this setup to America might “help to blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society.”

Although this narrative is sometimes debated, with scholars pointing out historical nuances, some key points remain: schools are “characterized by the bulk processing of students” lumped by age, schools are made to produce “a fairly uniform product” through emphasis on standardized tests, and schools’ curriculums are like assembly lines in that they force all students to learn the same subjects at roughly the same pace.

Where does this leave teachers? When teachers are caught in the middle between traditional assembly line structures and modern pushes to treat each student as an individual learner, they are set up for failure and frustration. As one educator puts it, “’teachers are told to sprinkle your differentiation fairy dust… With 32 students in a class, and no aides, ‘it’s not possible.”

High Duties, High Isolation

When Closed Doors are the Norm

Considering that teachers have an inordinate number of different jobs inside and outside the classroom and a structure that does not always support accomplishing all of those jobs, it should be no surprise that teachers are tied with doctors for the most stressful job in America.

One important source of high stress and result of high stress is teacher isolation. The idea that teachers are overly isolated in their professional lives is nothing new. In his 1975 classic Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie argued that teacher isolation is “one of the main structural impediments to improved instruction and student learning in American public schools.”

Unfortunately, teacher isolation hasn’t improved much since Schoolteacher was published; a recent study found that teachers spend only 3% of their time at school collaborating with colleagues. The same study found that nearly 90% of teachers in the U.S. believe that providing time to collaborate with colleagues is a crucial way to retain good teachers. Unfortunately, most schools are not set up to encourage collaboration and, in some ways, actively discourage it—hence the discrepancy between the 90% of teachers who value collaboration and the 3% of the day actually engaged in it.

Dan Lortie identified three types of teacher isolation to explain this gap. The first type is “egg-crate isolation,” the isolating architecture of schools that includes physical separation of classrooms. Sometimes high rates of teacher turnover and demographic changes are also included under egg-crate isolation. It is difficult to building lasting personal and professional relationships in a school where everyone closes the doors during lunch and where half the teachers in your grade level leave each year.

The other two types of isolation are related: psychological isolation, or teachers’ response to interactions with each other, and adaptive isolation, or isolation that comes from “the overwhelming state of mind when struggling to meet new demands.”

Isolation as Survival Tactic

Adaptive isolation is perhaps the most interesting of all three types, and it is a crucial piece of the conversation because it takes the blame for isolation off the teachers. After all, as the above statistics show, teachers do want to collaborate—they just don’t. Or, as adaptive isolation suggests, they can’t.

Speaking of teacher isolation is, in some senses, a paradox since teachers have one of the most socially stimulating jobs around. Teachers can have up to 1,000 interpersonal interactions per day, and secondary teachers see a staggering 121 students a day on average. However, as one teacher explains:

“I was entirely alone. There was no senior partner in the firm from whom I could solicit advice on my first case. There was no fellow doctor to whom I could talk about what new treatments to try out since what I was doing wasn’t working. There was no older professor who would coauthor an article with me… Professionally I was alone.”

As any stay at home parent will tell you, interpersonal interactions alone are not the same as interactions with peers and colleagues. Unfortunately, “the interpersonal demands of teaching may take a heavy toll on a teacher’s desire to seek additional interpersonal contact outside the classroom.” In addition to sheer social exhaustion, teachers are always strapped for time, and any minute spent talking with colleagues may be seen as a minute wasted. One teacher interviewed for a study put it this way:

“I wish I could go twenty four hours a day—give a paper, correct it, bring it back the next day for all five class. I think that’s the way students learn. But, you know, that’s physically impossible.”

This teacher, like many, views his job as never-ending—success, a horizon that will never be reached. Trapped in a mindset (and reality) of scarcity, teachers have their own Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; fulfilling the basic requirements of the job, like getting papers back to students within a few weeks, will always trump asking the teacher next door about their newest lesson plans. As the researcher from this study concluded, this teacher likely views “collegial interactions as both a distraction and a potential threat to his professional survival.”

During another one of the interviews, the teacher reminded them, “if I weren’t talking to you right now, I’d be at my desk correcting papers…”.

Looked at this way, isolation is less a social shortcoming on the part of teachers or even an inherent part of the occupation and more an “effective strategy that allows teachers to conserve scarce occupational resources.”

This idea, isolation as survival tactic, is imperative to grasp before suggesting educational reforms to combat teacher isolation. Taking down walls between classrooms or encouraging team teaching or teaching social skills in personal development programs will not be effective if the deeper reasons for the isolation aren’t considered and remediated.

A Collaborative New Role for Teachers

The Crucial First Step

As one might expect, since teacher isolation has been described and decried since the 1970’s, there are many different proposed solutions today. However, keeping in mind the frazzled teacher afraid to waste an hour on an interview, the prerequisite for any reform must be making teachers less stressed and giving them more time. Otherwise, a change to the curriculum or school architecture will be seen as just another thing taking teachers away from the looming stacks of papers on their desks.

Partnering with The Graide Network is the easiest and most effective way to do that. Our trained, future teachers (called Graiders) can give your students constructive, detailed, and actionable feedback on any number of papers, slashing your teachers’ grading time by an average of 88% and freeing them up to focus on the rest of their roles as a teacher.

With teacher isolation as one of the biggest problems facing the effectiveness of educators and the burden of grading as one of the biggest contributing factors to teacher isolation, partnering with The Graide Network is a big step toward improving the quality of your school.

With a lighter burden of grading, there are many other initiatives that can shift the role of teachers toward collaboration. One 2015 article highlights research showing that collaboration not only improves teacher satisfaction but also student learning and achievement. To that end, the authors suggest that schools:

  1. be structured in ways that maximize collaborative discussion among teachers

  2. create conditions that are conducive to growth and development for both teachers and learners

  3. reinforce study groups which aim at making teachers reflect on their current beliefs and practices and change them for the better

  4. move away from the once-popular teacher training courses towards teacher study groups, peer observation of teaching, and mentoring, which are conducive to constructing knowledge rather than passively receiving knowledge.

Structural Changes

The third idea, the teacher study group (TSG), is particularly innovative. A TSG can be defined as a “group of teachers who meet on a regular basis to share and discuss professional topics and issues based on their shared interests, beliefs, and practices (Pfaff, 2000).”

Early research suggests that this can be a more effective way to provide ongoing professional development for teachers and increase teacher effectiveness. In a TSG, the content can come from both internal sources, such as teacher discussion, reflection, and journal entries, and external sources, such as assigned articles for weekly or monthly reading. In addition to building valuable peer socialization into the teaching day, TSGs also give teachers more autonomy, as teachers are no longer passive consumers of professional development programs but rather active agents in their own development. TSGs can thereby shift the role of teachers both inside and outside the classroom.

Another way to increase teacher collaboration is to make teacher reviews more collaborative, ideally including both mentorship and evaluation. Mentoring could be limited to veteran teachers advising early career teachers, but ideally all teachers would have pair mentors to “observe each other’s lessons, discuss areas of reciprocal interest and design future schemes.”

Focusing on similarities and future growth will likely be less intimidating since “teachers can see their own teaching in the teaching of others, and when teachers observe others to gain self-knowledge, they have the opportunity to recreate their own knowledge (Çakir, 2010).” Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida already employ peer evaluation as an important component of teacher evaluation with their PAR and Empowering Effective Teachers programs, respectively.

Looking Forward

With these strategies in place, we can imagine a school in which teacher collaboration is not a luxury constantly deprioritized, but an integral part of everyday educational life. Teachers troubleshoot with each other in teacher study groups; teachers help to support and evaluate each other through peer mentoring; teachers have time to chat in the hallway about how their days went; and teachers take planning periods to construct lesson plans with their co-teachers.

There are many confusing issues in education today, but teacher isolation is not one of them. When teachers have sufficient time to devote to their many roles as educators in the classroom today, they will embrace collaborative teaching. Until then, no amount of wall crumbling will make teachers less isolated.

To find out how The Graide Network can help your school, learn more here.