How to Truly Appreciate Teachers: A Q&A With Gretchen Weber, AIR Managing Director

Gretchen Weber

Gretchen Weber, a managing director for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR, is still a teacher at heart. A National Board Certified Teacher, she thinks of herself as a voice for teachers—someone who has walked in their shoes and now hammers on the issues teachers face every day. She previously directed AIR’s Educator Effectiveness Programs, which provide technical assistance and applied research on the educator’s career continuum, particularly evaluation and professional growth.

Among her current responsibilities is overseeing research-to-practice applications for teachers and leaders. She has co-authored publications, including From Great to Influential: Teacher Leaders’ Roles in Supporting Instruction (2016), and recently moderated a webinar for EdWeek, “Momentum in Micro-Credentialing: The New Era of Educator Growth and Advancement.”

Q. How can we recognize teachers throughout the year, not just during Teacher Appreciation Week?

Weber: In the broadest sense, we need to do more to professionalize teaching, similar to what the medical profession has done for itself. Teaching could completely transform itself into a much more prestigious profession, with all of the benefits that go along with that.

At the start of the 19th century, the medical profession was completely chaotic and disorganized. Now, everyone goes through a rigorous pre-med program and then takes the Medical College Admission Test to get into medical school. At the end of medical school, doctors earn a medical license from their state in order to practice.

However, being licensed does not indicate whether a doctor is qualified to practice in a medical specialty; this requires board certification. Only 80% of physicians are board-certified. Board-certified doctors voluntarily meet additional standards beyond basic licensing. They demonstrate their expertise by earning board certification through one of the 24 member boards that are part of the not-for-profit American Board of Medical Specialties.

As consumers, we check to make sure we’re picking board-certified doctors to visit. In teaching, however, only about 3 percent of the teaching population is board-certified.

Q. What would it take to professionalize teaching?

Weber: We need to think more about selection for teacher preparation and a funnel of excellence toward licensure. For doctors, nurses, architects, and engineers, there’s a very clear line from entering a preparation program to becoming licensed to practice. For teachers, there are many different ways to enter the profession and earn a license—and it can be very confusing.

If you professionalize the teaching profession over time, you change the pipeline and can attract more highly skilled candidates to begin with. And if you funnel them into a more defined career pathway that includes board certification, parents would know that every day of every year they’re sending their children into classrooms with board-certified teachers.

The real challenge to this is state and local policy. With population growth and changing demographics, many states and districts are facing teacher shortages in specific areas, such as math, science, special education, foreign language, and English language learner teachers. We even hear anecdotally that some states are struggling to find elementary school teachers now. So you could make these great sweeping policy changes to raise the bar for licensure or entry into teacher preparation programs, but then you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face because you’re trying to raise the bar at the same time that you just need people. It’s one of the many catch-22s in education right now. Many states are tackling the short-term and long-term solutions through in-tandem policies that address improvements for the teaching workforce overall and create solutions to shortages.

Q. Given these challenges, what can states and districts do now to make the teaching profession more prestigious?

Gretchen: Address attrition. If you stop worrying about recruiting people to fix your teacher shortage problem and instead reduce attrition, you can solve over half of your shortage problem—and attract, support, and retain excellent educators. You can do this in a number of ways. You can improve your supports for new teachers. You can improve working conditions for new and veteran teachers. You can change recruitment, hiring, and placement to ensure a great fit and flexibility within and across districts. You can strengthen professional learning to keep pace with adult learning needs, changing student demographics, and rapidly changing technology. 

This is what eight states and 14 districts are doing through AIR’s Center on Great Teachers & Leaders Talent for Turnaround initiative. We’re helping them address talent issues in their local context, whether with induction mentoring or different professional development or improving school leadership and the ways in which principals interact and work with teachers. It really has helped them think more systematically and coherently around talent management.

Partners in the Talent for Turnaround initiative include the Center on School Turnaround and five federally funded regional Comprehensive Centers that offer services to states and districts in the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Southeast, and West.

Compensation is one of the top five reasons teachers cite when they leave the profession. It’s tied to prestige and to retention. But there are many other things you can do that don’t necessarily cost a lot. Within your existing budget, you can reallocate dollars around teacher leadership opportunities, such as in the Opportunity Culture, and keep your most effective teachers in front of the most kids possible. There are great examples of providing teachers with leadership opportunities and career pathways within the teaching profession and keeping them in the classroom, rather than moving them into administration or a principalship, or out of the profession altogether.

If you give teachers the opportunity to be part of decisionmaking, engagement about the direction of the school, the school improvement plan, and the strategies around those pieces, that creates a lot of good will. More importantly, it also drives real change and continuous improvement. Studies using data from teacher working condition surveys across multiple states and multiple years show that if you give teachers leadership or career opportunities and more voice over school-based decisions and more autonomy in their classrooms, it not only benefits students and their academic achievement, but it also recognizes and elevates the professional expertise each teacher holds. Recognizing teachers as the professionals they are is a great first step to elevating the profession.