When I left teaching to join NCTQ more than four years ago, I don't think anything could have kept me in the classroom. The pay was low, the demands high, and the effort of learning how to teach while teaching made me feel like I was drowning. As a chronic high-achiever, I felt a sense of frustration that the only path to advancement was outside the classroom, by becoming a principal. But most acutely, I felt like I was another cog in a machine that was failing students year after year.
There were ed reforms "back then" of course. My district had reading interventions, 9th grade academies, small schools, some principal autonomy in hiring, school turnaround interventions, and probably many more initiatives I wasn't even aware of. As a teacher, I had no sense of the gamut of the district's strategies or why particular reforms were selected, not to mention any rationale behind why they might help my failing school succeed.
Take pay for instance. I was assigned to my high school a year after a differentiated pay initiative targeted at high-need schools had ended--I suppose because the funds had dried up. But if I'd taught at this particular Title I school a year or two prior, I'd have seen an extra thousand bucks or so tacked on to my base pay (not small change to someone pulling in a first-year teacher's salary with no master's degree). Meanwhile, similar bonuses were still flowing at the failing Title I middle school down the street for science and special ed teachers.
Now, I think differential pay is a great idea, and I know I would have appreciated the extra cash as a recognition of my efforts in a more than challenging environment. But because the initiative was so random, it would have been impossible to choose a school where differentiated pay was offered. It came as more of a surprising extra than as an advertised incentive that might sway teachers' choices about where to teach, in the same way that many other reforms made unannounced appearances in schools. Without a formal introduction to the teachers who would implement them, these reforms almost inevitably fell flat.
When I put on my teacher hat, I can't help but worry that unless we bridge the gap between teachers and education policy, history will repeat itself. We see groups out there starting to address the issue: Teach Plus, E4E, Hope Street Group's National Teacher Fellows and NCTQ's new TAG. We're on the right track, but much more is needed, particularly at the district level, to ensure that teachers are informed agents in the reform process rather than cogs in the wheel.