Don’t wait for ‘super-teachers,’ restructure schools to use teachers’ strengths

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Waiting for Superman,” the documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, embraces the belief that good teachers make good schools.  And recent research, legislation and public commentary have embraced the idea that we need to strengthen and reform our efforts on teacher preparation and professional development programs in order to build a better teacher. 

The $4.35 billion question is: can we turn the 6-million plus U.S. teachers into “Super Teachers,” masters of both content and the techniques of student engagement and achievement? Should we? 

What if instead of focusing our energies on building “Super Teachers” – able to leap standardized testing in a single bound – we work instead to create a bold staffing model that empowers teachers and plays to their strengths? Maybe it’s not about adding on, but about branching out.

If we want more students to achieve, we need to let teachers become specialists. At the dawn of a new decade, it’s time to overthrow the one-size-fits-all delivery system that has characterized the teaching profession for the last 100+ years. It’s time to innovate. We can build a staffing model that gives teachers the flexibility to specialize in one or more aspects of a child’s education, and then apply that expertise in a team-based environment allowing them to implement approaches that fit that child’s learning style and strengths.

Imagine your own elementary school.  Think about how many hats (or capes) your teachers had to wear.  Teachers do everything from creating and implementing lesson plans that meet all 30 to 120 students’ needs, to creating and scoring weekly formative assessments, checking homework, writing instructional technology grant applications and learning to use the new tools, making sure that students have enough to eat and developing productive student relationships.

Now imagine if each teacher just wears the hat that fits on his or her own head. And no, we don’t have to hire specialists to perform all of the other tasks. Instead, let’s think more creatively about how we use staff time and expertise. 

Our schools can foster an environment of strategically shared leadership and responsibilities by turning to a “neo-differentiated” staffing model. Under this model, each faculty member’s job description is re-engineered and experts from the community are brought in for part of the day. 

This part-time staffing provides resources for students, reduces overhead and frees up time for teachers to apply their specialized expertise to student learning.  By streamlining the process, we get students the services and supports they need, giving more children more of a chance to succeed.  And we better capitalize on the talent, knowledge, and skills of teachers, improving their ability to provide effective instruction and consequently, increasing their professional satisfaction.

With a new student-centered approach to learning, coupled with the integration of services at the school buildings, teams of professionals can more easily meet and discuss the emotional, health and social components of their students’ learning all at once. We explore what this approach can look like in our paper, Toward the Structural Transformation of Schools: Innovations in Staffing. 

This approach treats teachers the way they have always deserved: like they are truly effective with their students and are part of a professional team. Also, teachers would no longer have to feel the burden of being solely responsible for their students’ learning and welfare.
 
Let’s stop trying to build a super-teacher and instead structure the school day so teachers don’t need capes to shine.  Talk about saving the day. 

Sabrina Laine, Ph.D
Chief Program Officer, Learning Point Associates (an affiliate of American Institutes for Research)
Director, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality

Molly Lasagna
Policy Analyst, Learning Point Associates