What’s the job of teacher? The crying need for a genuine job description.

A rarely discussed weakness in education is the lack of a true job description for teachers in hiring. Being told that “you will teach US History” or “we are hiring you to be a 4th grade teacher” is not a job description. It doesn’t say what you are responsible for causing. It merely describes the content and level you will be teaching. It doesn’t demand that you achieve anything in particular. It only says that a certain slot and set of roles should be filled and certain content should be covered.

A real job description would be written around the key learning goals and Mission-related outcomes. What am I expected to cause in students? What am I supposed to accomplish? Whatever the answer, that’s my job.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching doesn’t really address this problem, despite its many strengths. All the domains are about skills, not achievements; inputs, not outcomes: Planning and Preparation, the Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. Couldn’t you therefore have these skills but not be an achiever of outstanding results? Vice versa: I have known many teachers who do little more than cause learning, yet would be found wanting on many of the components (think: Jaime Escalante or any gruff loner-but-respected veteran teacher).

Interestingly, job descriptions in other fields are typically far clearer about results sought. Here is an excerpt from a job description for a manager of marketing (arguably just a different version of “teacher”) from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development:

  • Plan and prepare advertising and promotional material to increase sales of products or services.
  • Inspect layouts and advertising copy and edit scripts, audio and video tapes, and other promotional material for adherence to specifications.
  • programs that meet identified buyer targets.
  • Monitor and analyze sales promotion results to determine cost effectiveness of promotion campaigns.
  • Read trade journals and professional literature to stay informed on trends, innovations, and changes that affect media planning.
  • Track program budgets and expenses and campaign response rates to evaluate each campaign based on program objectives and industry norms.

Notice how the italicized phrase in each item establishes a performance goal for the role: “to increase sales…for adherence to specifications…that meet buyer targets…to determine cost effectiveness…to stay informed…to evaluate each campaign.” How odd, really, that teachers are rarely hired in terms of desired outcomes like this.

Some years back I had an illuminating conversation with a high school principal about the problems in our hiring. We were arguing about what to do with the problem of so many teachers merely marching through textbooks. I said to him: well, you’re the Principal, you can change this. “Whoa!” he retorted. “I don’t have control over what they do. I just rent space to them in the mall.” A tad sarcastic and overstated, perhaps – but a sobering view of an all-too-common reality. Once hired, you can often define the job as you see fit.

I think we can boil the desired results of “teacher” down to a few core obligations. An educator must arguably cause four things in learners:

  1. greater interest in the subject and in learning than was there before, as determined by observations, surveys, and client feedback
  2. successful learning related to key course goals, as reflected in mutually agreed-upon evidence
  3. greater confidence and feelings of efficacy as revealed by student behavior and reports (and as eventually reflected in improved results)
  4. a passion and intellectual direction in each learner

1. For some odd reason the issue of student boredom and lack of interest in school work is rarely addressed in job descriptions and evaluation, even though it is arguably one of the greatest impediments to higher levels of student achievement. No one is going to meet higher standards if the work and classroom are boring. Our student survey results make the needs and solutions crystal-clear.

2. Successful learning understood as gain from a baseline is a no-brainer: make a difference in each learner, beyond the predicted effect size that results from just growing a year older in school. Even if value-added metrics are bogus at the macro level, they are essential at the local level. We should demand pre- and post- results on worthy assessment tasks that get at the heart of ongoing key goals such as argumentation, clarity of communication, problem solving, etc. (Many of the newer accountability systems try to do this, but too many of the SGOs or SLOs are invalid or silly, designed to game the system.)

3. Make students feel more competent and confident. No one – teacher included – is likely to learn if the learning environment makes one feel alienated, stupid or irrelevant. We also know that if students feel that the locus of control is outside themselves then learning to high levels is unlikely, and reaction to failure will be dysfunctional. Changing such fatalism ought to be a highly-valued component of a teacher job description.

4. You cannot achieve great results without knowing kids and playing to their strengths, no matter how fixed the standards and curriculum are. How many students are regularly helped to play to and recognize their strengths as a central part of planning, teaching, assessing, and reporting? The ideal was framed nicely by the SCANS report: students should leave school with a résumé, not a transcript. How many teachers (besides primary-grade teachers) spend the first week of school mostly getting to know the strengths, weaknesses, talents, interests, and styles of all learners – and then taking a few days to modify plans accordingly? Interestingly enough, almost all coaches do this: early practice is primarily about seeing who you have and what they can do; and adjusting accordingly.

“I have to cover the content”

With a genuine job description we can finally tackle a great problem in education, the common view that the job is to cover the content. No: marching page by page through a textbook (or the written curriculum) can never be your job as a teacher – ever. The textbook or curriculum is written completely independently of your goals and students; it is a generic resource that merely pulls together a comprehensive body of information and lessons in a package for use by thousands of people with varying needs all over the United States. It is utterly insensitive to formative assessment results and the near certainty that deviations from the pagination will be needed to cause high levels of learning.

Textbooks are thus really like dictionaries or encyclopedias. And we don’t ask you to learn English by going through the dictionary from A to Z. Yet, this is what almost all textbook-driven teaching amounts to. As with dictionaries and encyclopedias, you would consult them as needed – i.e. in light of specific overarching goals. That this approach to textbooks rarely happens may be the biggest indicator of the pressing need to clarify the job.

Once the goals are clear, intelligent decisions about the textbook can be made:

  • Which chapters in the textbook are central to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?
  • Which chapters are not vital, relating only somewhat to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?
  • Which chapters can be skipped since they are irrelevant to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?
  • What must I do to supplement the text in order to achieve my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?

“No, you don’t get it! I have to cover all this content to prepare them for the tests! That’s the bottom line, not my goal, and I am hassled about it regularly. We have to prepare them for the test, so we have to cover everything.”

But as I have long written, backed by both evidence[1] and common sense, this widely-heard lament simply doesn’t make sense. Here’s what you are saying, really: “I would rather teach for understanding and engagement, but I can’t. I ‘have to’ just cover all this content superficially and right out of the textbook. That’s what the tests demand.”

Really? The tests reward superficial and disengaging teaching? You need to teach badly to get higher test scores? The work has to be scattershot and uninteresting to be good preparation for a test?

Such a view defies common sense as well: the best teachers I have seen make their subject interesting and they make it hang together via interesting problems, big ideas, and clear performance goals. Endless content coverage is actually the approach of someone who has no explicit course goals and strategy for staying focused on them. In other words, someone not clear on their job.

I blame the employers, not the teachers: the job description is their obligation. Hiring against it and evaluating against it is one of their primary obligations. It’s time we got this basic act of professionalism in the workplace right.

[1] See Shwartz et al (2009), and Bain (2004).


(This is a greatly revised piece, for blog purposes, based on a chapter I wrote a few years back for a Solution Tree book on teaching.)


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