Monday, October 6, 2008

Call For Action: Rebirth of the Professional Teaching Organizations

Michael Krumm, former superintendent at Ballard (Huxley) school district, wrote this about education:

In the struggle for the future vision of education, three prominent voices have emerged. Those who idolize the status quo, those who model reform in standardized data and accountability, and those who want education to be open to parental choice. The fourth voice, once the most prominent, is now a distant murmur. It is the voice of teaching professional organizations, who have seen their numbers diminish precipitously. This is truly the most dramatic shift--it is not the rise of the other groups.

The National Science Teacher's Association, National Council for Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and National Council of Teachers of English all report decreased membership. Statewide and national meetings are shells of their former selves, some even being canceled. Whereas membership to the professional organization used to be something to receive top billing on a resume, now it is overlooked for being part of building leadership teams or other local groups.

There are many theories as to why this is the case. Gas prices have played a toll. Pella Community School District, for years as progressive a school district in Iowa as you will see, has put a moratorium on all travel outside the district. They aren't alone. Districts can't afford to send teachers to conferences anymore.

Technology has changed things to some extent. With the internet, the free-flow of information and ideas doesn't require conventions like it used to.

Perhaps most important, the profession as a whole has become to be perceived as... well, less professional. And, while a lot of this negativity is unfairly gathered by smear-like techniques of public schools, it does raise some questions. Belonging to an organization used to be a badge of honor for teachers. Many of my mother's age would pay their own way for dues and convention fees if their district could not afford to send them. That doesn't seem to be the mentality now.

And maybe, the professional organizations do not have enough to offer teachers. If this is the case, it is definitely a bad situation.

When you define what a "professional" is, you have to get beyond pay and educational level. Professional connotes a collegiality, a person who engages in a forum of the sharing of thoughts. It suggests that the knowledge and skills of the trade are beyond simple training. They have to be continuously developed and nurtured over time. And, they imply a thirst to improve for the sake of the profession.

I've had the fortune to work with many teachers in different districts, and I will stand by the fact that out of the ones I've met, 90% are doing their best to become excellent teachers. The ones running off the worksheet masters and ducking out at 3:15 every day are the exception. I will also admit that there is a smaller percentage who are unbelievably gifted, so much so that
the local levels of professional development are not enough to help the teachers soar. They are called to be leaders on a bigger stage, part of a professional organization, where they can learn and share with the best.

Krumm, pointing to examples in Japanese history after WWII, says this:

In reality, once professional capital is lost, it is lost forever. In worldwide history, once a professional organization has been weakened, it cannot be rebuilt as easily.

In this case, we are in dire straits. We need to lubricate our mechanisms so that we can grow professional networks again. Teachers have to be able to interchange ideas. And as George Siemens would point out, those have to come from weak connections... in other words, interchange not from the teacher in the next room, but rather one in the next district. That is where growth occurs.

How do we do this? Perhaps technology has the answer. Professional communities can be built online (the popular term is a "Ning", stemming from the website Here, people can build a profile, much as they do in Facebook or Myspace, but unlike the cosmetic applications, Nings can be built around professional missions and goals that the members have in common. A ning could be built for teachers of physical education to share ideas, stories, frustrations, and support. Cutting edge technology could be shared, as well as assessment strategies. And, leaders from the collegiate level and the professional level could join as well. Imagine if trainers, nutritionists, and physical therapists were able to share their thoughts and reflections in this group, how much richer PE teachers would be.

The problem with this is that Nings are very fragile. The typical lifecycle of a ning is not very long, and looks somewhat like this: It is started, word spreads, people join enthusiastically (it's something new), they start to post, they have trouble connecting to a colleague that they couldn't go a day without, they start going a day without them, less posting occurs, other would-be participants looking for activity pass it over, and it finally dies out. I enthusiastically joined 3 nings this fall looking to broaden my expertise in a new area of education (distance learning). All 3 nings have many members but little "must-see" activity on them, and I don't visit them anymore.

It will take dedicated leadership to make nings successful, much like it takes an expert's touch to keep students engaged in the discussion in the classroom. I've seen teachers do the latter many times, so I'm hopeful they can do the former. The free-flow of information and ideas, along with the personal sense of pride that follows identification as a professional are crucial to the well-being of our classrooms.

My question for you: Do you agree with Krumm, that the deterioration of professional organizations is more dramatic than the rise in those seeking school choice, preservation of the status quo, or standardized data accountability? And, what are the prospects for the professional organization voice in the future guidance of education in America?

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