As many parents act as teachers in these strange times, there has been a lot of talk on social media about appreciating teachers. Parents are outdoing themselves sharing funny and heartbreaking stories of their struggles with home-schooling. But before the pandemic, most people would have sincerely claimed to appreciate teachers... so why the increased appreciation for teachers now?
One part of the answer is more obvious: parents are experiencing firsthand how challenging it is to be with children that many hours in a row. Put another way, parents are seeing the “soft skills” work of teaching: being patient and kind, group management, being entertaining and engaging. But our new appreciation of teachers is also about something else, something less obvious...
Parents are now experiencing how cognitively difficult it is to teach academic content. They are having to help their children do things like add and multiply fractions and realizing:
This is harder than it seems! Why do we keep the denominators the same, but not the denominators, the same when we add fractions? When we multiply fractions, why is the answer less than either of the fractions being multiplied? What does it even mean to multiply fractions?
In grappling with these sorts of questions, parents are getting a taste of the deep cognitive work of teaching, which includes understanding the academic content itself, applying strong pedagogy (how to plan and deliver lessons) to the content, analyzing assessment results, giving feedback that actually helps students to do better next time, and the like.
What’s going on here? Wasn’t it obvious that the cognitive work of teaching would be difficult and important? Did we need a pandemic to make us realize it? Parents’ strong reactions to having to teach their children at home gives us the answers: no, it was not obvious and, yes, we did. This cognitive-academic part of teaching has long been overlooked and underestimated, to the detriment of our students.
The result of us under-appreciating the deep cognitive work of teaching is that have not given teachers enough time, training, or support to do it well; we have just assumed that teachers could figure it out based on a couple of classes in their respective teacher training programs. Teachers need large amounts of time to study their content, plan how to present this content to students, design and grade assessments, and reflect on how successful their teaching was and how they will improve their teaching next time--all of which teachers should do both alone and with peers. Note that all of this vital and time-consuming work must take place when teachers are not in the classroom with students.
The status quo at most schools is that teachers have one or two periods a day as “planning periods”--not nearly enough time to do all this deep cognitive work. Even worse, teachers are often given other responsibilities during their planning periods, such as helping with misbehaving students or attending useless meetings. This means that teachers are left to do the bulk of their planning, grading, and reflecting at home in evenings and weekends, when they are tired and not with their colleagues. It’s no wonder we so often end up with the worst of both worlds: mediocre teaching and burnt-out teachers.
A silver lining of our current situation is that parents now better understand and respect the deep, challenging, cognitive aspect of teaching. How could we show teachers we truly appreciate this part of their work? First, restructure teachers’ jobs so that they have more time to do this critical cognitive work; give them half of their working day to plan, grade, and reflect, both alone and with colleagues. Second, give every teacher a highly-skilled instruction coach, who can help them do this challenging work and become more proficient over time. Third, pay teachers more. If we want to attract and retain people who can excel at this cognitively demanding work, teacher salaries need to be comparable with salaries of other cognitively demanding professions. Doing any of these would go a lot farther than another witty social media post about how hard it is to teach our kids at home. (That said, keep the appreciative posts coming!)
Appreciating teachers means appreciating the deep cognitive work they must do. Thank you, teachers.