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EAST House hosts screening and discussion of “American Teacher”

Assoc. Prof. Ira Lit and Salina Gray
Assoc. Prof. Ira Lit and Salina Gray

EAST House hosts screening and discussion of “American Teacher”

Faculty and students share their perspectives on the film and the challenges facing teachers.

By Brianna Liang

Stanford’s Education and Society Theme (EAST) House recently hosted a screening and panel discussion focused on the challenges facing American teachers in the current public education system.

The event began with a screening of the documentary American Teacher in the Elliot Programming Center, followed by an interactive discussion in the EAST House dining room. The film follows four public school teachers as they negotiate the struggles of exhausting hours, inadequate pay, and societal stigma associated with their profession. The free event, which was held on February 3, was open to the entire Stanford community, and was supported by the Charles F. Riddell Fund and Residential Education.

Associate Professor Anthony Lising Antonio moderated the discussion that followed the screening. Antonio and Associate Professor (Teaching) Christine Min Wotipka serve as Resident Fellows for EAST House.

Antonio and Wotipka invited several other School of Education affiliates to share their perspectives with audience members. The panelists included Associate Professor (Teaching) Susan O’Hara, executive director of the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching; Associate Professor (Teaching) Ira Lit, director of the Stanford Elementary Teacher Education Program; as well as Salina Gray and Alexis Patterson, current doctoral students in Science Education and former teachers.

“Compensation is relevant, but not the whole picture”

Antonio led off the discussion by asking the panelists whether they agreed with the documentary’s assertion that increasing teacher pay would largely solve the problems of teacher retention and quality.

The panelists cautioned against looking at teacher pay as a panacea for all of the problems facing public education today, particularly teacher burnout – the high turnover rate as teachers become frustrated and leave the field.

Patterson believes that this burnout can be attributed more to an unhealthy work-life balance, as “a lack of balance makes it difficult for people to stay in their profession.”

O’Hara, acknowledging that “teaching and supporting teachers is extremely complex,” instead proposed an alternative solution: better preparation and support for teachers currently in the profession.

“Teaching has become an isolated profession, and we don’t provide them with nearly enough collaboration time with peers and colleagues,” she said.

However, O’Hara also recognized that low salary contributes in part to the low status of teaching as a career.

“How (much) we pay people has some meaning since society distinguishes the importance of a profession partly by looking at its salary,” O’Hara said. “But I don’t think that raising teachers’ salaries is the solution.”

Some in the audience questioned the panel about possible causes underlying this high turnover rate, other than substandard pay.

Lit asserted that seeing the value of their work is much more important to teachers than their salaries.

“I think that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but so are a lot of professions,” said Lit. “Compensation is relevant but it’s not the whole picture. It has very little to do with compensation and everything to do with teachers’ sense of efficacy. A lot of people work hard at their jobs, and they’re happy to do so as long as they feel that they’re making a difference.”

Patterson cited her experience in the classroom at a school where teachers worked 90+ hours each week, including weekends.

“Physically, you become exhausted living that kind of lifestyle day in and day out,” said Patterson. “In order to make up for the ills of society, we felt we had to work harder. We had to make up for the children’s situations. We found ourselves trying to compensate for things we shouldn’t have to compensate for.”

O’Hara also pointed to the lack of support available to teachers, which she claimed was the major contributing factor in her decision to leave the profession.

“Intellectually challenging work is fostered when you have the opportunity to collaborate,” said O’Hara. “In higher education, there is more opportunity to do this than in the (K-12) classroom. If that had been there, I would have been more willing to stay in the classroom.”

O’Hara also indicated that rigid standardization of curriculum can limit instructional creativity and enthusiasm for teaching.

“People leave because there aren’t structures in place where they can teach the way they know is best,” she said.“There is a very prescribed curriculum. The best teachers are trying to find ways to teach well despite the system.”

Limits of Online Educational Technology

Another audience member wondered if equal access to high quality instruction could be implemented through the use of online educational programs. He used Khan Academy, a popular web site that supplies free educational video lectures, as an example of such a program.

Patterson asserted that while online education offers an excellent supplementary resource, it cannot effectively replace excellent in-classroom instruction.

“I appreciate what Khan Academy does, presenting the content in an easy to understand and accessible manner,” said Patterson. “But there’s more to teaching than just the content. I don’t think that’s ever going to replace all of what is necessary for students to be successful.”

O’Hara noted that there is often a large discrepancy among students’ ability to use such resources.

“Not all kids have access to the same kinds of technology,” she said.

Gray added that access to good instruction may not be the primary issue, as low-performing schools don’t necessarily have low-quality teachers.

“Some of the best teachers I’ve seen have been teachers in some of the toughest schools,” said Gray.

Education in the U.S. vs. Abroad

The film also contrasted the American educational system with those of high performing countries, such as Finland, which place high value on teaching as a career path. Some in the audience wondered why the profession is so stigmatized in America.

Lit indicated that the structural differences and flexibility of Finland’s educational system has contributed to their students’ strong performance.

“There is more collaboration, and more time during the school week for planning and development,” said Lit. “There’s also a more flexible, more dynamic curriculum. These both lead to teachers having a greater sense of efficacy, which produces better outcomes.”

Beginning teachers are particularly encouraged in their development.

“Finland has less instructional time, and more professional development,” said Lit. “In the beginning of their careers, teachers have a lighter instructional load when they need it the most. The teacher induction phase is carried out very differently.”

As for the U.S., Lit argued that the de-prioritization of education has led to the widespread lack of esteem for teaching as a profession.

“We have devalued education and teaching in particular,” said Lit. “We don’t make much of an investment in it. There are places in the world where teaching is valued, and so education is one of their most competitive graduate school programs.”

O’Hara believes that teaching should be considered a prestigious career in America as well.

“People want to be valued for doing a really hard job,” she said.

Gray asserted that others’ criticism of her choice to become a teacher motivates her to change their low opinions of the profession through her work.

“As a teacher, people won’t have much respect for you,” said Gray.“I heard from my peers: ‘you’re too smart, you can’t be a teacher.’ I constantly want to disprove and disrupt stereotypes, and so I applied that same logic to teaching. The frequency of these remarks is indicative of the low status of teaching as a profession. I’m trying to change the way people view teachers.”

Moving Toward Educational Change

So what can be done to improve public education in America? The panel offered their suggestions for changes that could be implemented to improve teacher retention and quality, other than the salary increases proposed by the film.

Patterson noted that smaller class sizes and smaller schools generally perform better by encouraging individualized instruction and giving teachers a more manageable workload.

She also advocated for further preparation before they enter the classroom, so that teachers have realistic expectations for what they will encounter in their day-to-day work.

“Teachers need a rigorous training program that will prepare them for the experience they will have in the classroom,” said Patterson.

O’Hara added that school and district leadership can be incredibly influential.

“We need principals who see themselves as instructional leaders rather than managers,” she said.

However, Lit noted that there wouldn’t likely be one magic fix for the American educational system.

“We’ve been doing teaching and learning the same way since before we’ve been people,” said Lit.“The model has been remarkably resistant to change. There’s never going to be one thing that solves all our problems.”

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