Enduring School Riddles, Part 2

You may recall last month’s promise to open a conversation on the toughest stuff that schools need to figure out, so here comes the second installment. If the opening topic was about the cost of what we do, the next door neighbor topic has to be teachers: what we expect of them, what they can expect from us, what’s the future of the profession. And let’s start with affirming that notion of a profession—like law or medicine or engineering. You won’t be surprised to hear that finding, keeping, and acknowledging great faculty came through loud and clear in the recent survey about priorities for the next head of school here on our happy 38 acres. What will we do with that energy? Read on—there may be no more important knot for us to untie:

Let’s start with a look at our educational model. For centuries, school has meant combining groups of students with a wise, well read, caring, respected adult in a classroom setting. That version of school has maintained remarkable staying power. I’ve heard it said that if Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep 100 years ago and awakened recently, one of the few places he’d see now that looked familiar would be a school. We continue to love that model. We don’t want robot teachers, or much computer-based instruction, or really anything that does not work out to be highly familiar and relational. COVID showed us all that definitively.

The issue is that relying primarily on people means understanding that their productivity can’t really increase—compensating teachers costs more each year, to keep up with basic price level increases, and they are essentially doing the same amount of work. If you want to sound informed on all this, mention Baumol’s Disease, named for an NYU economist who recently passed away and explained why a concert orchestra kept costing more—because it relied almost entirely on people to produce, unlike a car factory. Schools and hospitals face this challenge most famously.

Meanwhile, we keep asking more of teachers, on the social-emotional front, on the technology front, on the public health front, and on the relevance front. Every societal challenge we know of shows up at the schoolhouse door every day. For all the years I’ve been in education, the scope of the job has continued to expand, alongside worries that the next generation of teachers we need may not materialize. Those predictions continued to be wrong for a nice long while. Now it feels like things are changing.

For the sake of brevity and your attention span, it strikes me that the needs are twofold. One, to rethink the way we do school, to at least imagine some different models that don’t ask quite so much of our educational professionals working in quite such an isolated role. That’s a long-haul challenge that may require us to plant seeds that may not live long enough to produce trees that will shelter us personally. Secondly, we can find ways to support and recognize our current teachers so they can genuinely see a future doing this essential work. That seems far more doable in the near team.

For everyone’s benefit (families, children, teachers, the wider community), we at Island School should be leading on these questions, not following. It’s one of the best things about being an independent school—we can mobilize faster and act on our priorities. The whole challenge took a long while to get this way, but we don’t have forever to respond without risking some serious consequences. 

Let me close with a question—would you want your own child to choose teaching as a profession? If so, why, and if not, why not? And how do we understand those answers if we think education really matters? I absolutely loved teaching (and still do), but started taking on admin responsibilities for financial reasons, rather than picking up second or third jobs as so many of my colleagues did, and here I am now, doing something really cool and feeling very thankful. But I know with certainty that our classroom teachers are doing some of the most important work there is.

Stay safe over Halloween and don’t take anything from strangers, OK?

See you at Fall Fest, if not before,