Helping Teachers Teach


All of the work to date to improve teaching has resulted in a general level of professionalism that can be seen in most classrooms. This general level of professionalism includes the ability to start classes with a review of the standards to be taught followed by the enactment of a curriculum that can be understood and ending with a review of what was learned.

Ongoing Improvement

But let’s not forget that teaching children who are more diverse and have a greater set of learning needs results in a need for teachers to improve their teaching from a personal, developmental perspective, but also from an ever-changing student-need perspective. This is hard work for a general level of professionalism. The higher level of professionalism that would deliver a deeper learning experience for all children can only be achieved by better recruitment and retention and better instructional leadership to create, maintain and improve system-wide quality.

Recruitment and Retention

When helping teachers to do their best teaching, it is important to remember that the recruitment and retention of good teachers is the foundation upon which we need to build this profession. Recruitment is about who we choose for this profession and retention is how we keep them here. If we look across our borders to other countries for the best examples of recruitment we find that they use a broad set of criteria to select the best teacher candidates.

“The systems are highly selective, using a broad set of criteria to select recruits. A report by McKinsey and Company (Auguste, Kihn, and Miller, 2010) attracted a great deal of attention in the United States with its finding that teacher-education institutions in countries such as Finland and Singapore draw from the top 30 percent of students, based on their academic skills. Although it is true that both countries expect strong academic qualifications for teacher-candidates, that is not the only criterion they use to select candidates. In these and other jurisdictions we studied, candidates are expected to demonstrate interest in, experience with, and commitment to children, and a range of competencies and dispositions that are surfaced in selection processes that extend beyond transcripts and grades. These can include interviews and performance tasks, as well as a range of references”

NCEE, 2018

One reason that our system is less selective is that we do not have enough highly qualified recruits for all school systems. In other words, some systems need so many teachers that they have to lower the academic standards in recruiting new teachers in order to fill their classroom vacancies.

Singapore’s Model

One of the key ideas here is that a highly selective system ensures that new teachers get the support they need or are counseled out of teaching in the first year. It can be difficult for Americans to visualize how a more selective system for recruiting teachers works. And arguments against comparing ourselves to other countries because of our diversity are to be considered. Nevertheless, looking across to other countries for help can be very instructive as models for us and goals for our improvement. Let’s look at Singapore’s example:

“New teachers are observed and coached by grade level chairs, subject area chairs, and heads of departments. If the teacher is not performing well, additional support and coaching come into play. Everyone tries to help the new teacher adjust and improve, but lack of improvement, poor attitude or lack of professionalism is not tolerated. The new teacher may be allowed to try another school, but if a year of working with the teacher has not improved his or her performance the teacher may be asked to leave the profession. The system believes that it should do its best upfront and counsel out those who do not make progress despite the support and assistance. Pass this milestone, very few teachers are asked to leave, and then the causes may be lack of integrity, inappropriate behavior with the student, financial mismanagement, or racial insensitivity.”

NCEE, 2018, Singapore

Competitive Salaries and Subsidized Preparation

Another reason we do not have a selective system for recruiting new teachers is that we do not subsidize their preparation and we do not offer them competitive salaries compared to other professions.

“Selective recruitment is supported by competitive salaries and subsidized preparation. The jurisdictions we studied pay teachers comparably with other college graduates, so there are few opportunity costs for choosing teaching. In addition, preparation is free or subsidized and, in some countries, accompanied by a stipend or salary.”

NCEE, 2018

When college graduates compare potential job salaries many of them leave teaching off their list. Going into education here in America is often seen as a step down on the competitive salary rung.

A System for Building Teacher Capacity

But the real barrier to recruiting and retaining enough quality teachers is that we do not coordinate their recruitment and their retention under a larger system for constructing and maintaining a high level of professionalism. Other high-performing countries produce a rigorous preparation program and a growth oriented professional development for all teachers.

“Recruitment and Selection are part of a system. The selection process is just the beginning of a continuum of teacher policies in high-performing countries. The process includes a rigorous preparation program to ensure that all prospective teachers develop the knowledge and skills they need to become effective, induction programs to ease new teachers’ entry into teaching, professional learning opportunities to enable teachers to work with peers to develop and improve their competencies, and professional growth opportunities to enable them to use those competencies to take on greater responsibilities.”

NCEE, 2018

Lead Learners

The final piece of the puzzle for creating a systemwide profession is the maintenance of such a system requires instructional leadership that is defined as “lead learners” (Fullan, 2014). Everyone in schools has to know what is going on in their classrooms. The principals, and any other instructional supporters, need to demonstrate the same characteristics of good teaching: being the best learners of our student’s learning. Lead learners display a curiosity about all of their students, all of their teachers, and all of their schools and are able to apply that learning to improve teachers in all classrooms.


Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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