The Ladder Runs the Wrong Way

Changing How We Incentivize Teaching Careers

Student learning is the most important aspect of public education, and retaining quality teachers sits at the core of student learning. Teachers are at the “front lines” of education – it is where the dirty work, the struggles, and the successes happen. Any policy changes, curriculum implementation, or other declarations from administration or the district run through teachers before they begin to impact students. In short – quality teachers have the most positive impact on students. Yet most districts in public education incentivize quality teachers to climb the ladder.

The problem is, the ladder runs the wrong way.

The Wrong Incentives

At one point in their career, quality teachers will have the opportunity to make a change in their job. If they choose, they can stay at their current teaching post. They will continue making nominal (if any) raises in their salary, putting up with slashes in resources and budget, rising class sizes, and flavor-of-the-day educational decisions. Or, the quality teacher can move to a coaching, coordinating, or administrative job. This brings substantial raises in salary and more autonomy over work. These positions also bring about more visibility which can lead to even more opportunities like speaking gigs, book deals, or more promotions up the ladder. It is no wonder that so many quality teachers leave the classroom at some point in their career to pursue a less “hands-on” position.

Why are our districts set up this way? Why are there so many incentives for quality teachers to leave the classroom?

It seems obvious this strategy is not ideal. Quality educators should not be leaving their classrooms, where they have a major positive impact on students, for a “hands-off” role in education.

Descending the Ladder

There are two relatively actionable solutions to this problem. The first, is to change the role of coaches and coordinators within school districts. Turn these positions back into a “hands-on” role, and let the quality teachers team up with classrooms in their school to model and share their knowledge. Lesson plans, management techniques, curriculum implementation, and teaching strategies can all be modeled right in class as the coach teaches, and the classroom teacher supports. Not only does this allow the quality teacher to support both students and teachers alike, the students also receive the benefits of team teaching when most districts don’t have the money to implement this strategy in its entirety.

The second solution is perhaps more drastic – incentivize teachers to stay in their classrooms to continue their positive impact on students. Build in higher pay scales for teachers, incentivizing them to connect more with the community, research current practices, and try new ideas. Offer teachers more autonomy in the classroom so that they can pursue their passions within teaching, rather than needing to leave the classroom to fulfill those dreams. Provide teachers the support they need so that they have the freedom and energy to explore their space in education.

Too many quality teachers leave their classrooms to pursue their “career in education.” Education needs less of this and more quality teachers staying in their classrooms, not because of guilt or a sense of honor – rather, because that is the smart decision for their career. Career ladders in education need to run back into the classroom, not away from them.

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