Saturday, June 2, 2012

Creative Teaching, Personal Growth, and the Brain Drain

Take one: One of our presenters in the Tech EDGE conference (coming next week for the third time) told me when we had a few  minutes that she was tired of how slowly her district was transforming. She felt that after 5+ years at the forefront of technology implementation she wanted to move to better and bigger things.
Take two: At the NETA conference last spring I came face to face with a sobering reality. Here was a crowd eager to learn, eager to grow and be creative in teaching. We heard exceptional speaker, learned new applications and had way too much coffee together. But conversations around the tables and the professional reality of many of the presenters (and I suspect participants as well) was in transition. Many were working at the district level, ESU (Educational Service Units), some even for technology companies.

The question is whether education or more specifically teaching is experiencing a "brain drain". Is it possible that  teachers leaving the profession after 5-20 years experience because they cannot be creative and innovative in large bureaucratic systems? The data I have is anecdotal (there is a dissertation in this I am sure) but still intriguing. It is possible that creative and innovative teachers seek out more education, professional development and new ideas. I have long held the belief that there is a point in a teacher's career that she feels that there must be something else out there beyond the district. That when teachers seek out professional development, graduate degrees and new projects. The irony is that the new knowledge and innovative ideas can be exactly the thing that starts distancing them from the classroom until they cannot see themselves going on and start looking for alternatives. When the opportunity is there they get a doctoral degree, become teacher educators, or perhaps go work for Apple.

Why now? I think that there are structural reasons in public education that may be encouraging the "brain drain". On the one hand the increased pressure on teachers to "perform" on high stakes standardized measures constrain curriculum and creativity leaving little to no room for experimentation. This is contrasted by the fast paced changes in technology and society. The difference in rate of change is staggering. Finally, it is more socially acceptable and often necessary to change careers at least once in adulthood.

While I understand the urge to make personal changes I wonder if the state of public education might be progressively hurt by this phenomenon. Are the best minds running in the other direction? It could be that this is "The new normal" for education. The challenge is not just having a younger less experienced teaching force, it is that a good portion of the veteran work force are exactly those who are less likely to innovate and lead positive change. Now, to be totally honest, I am not in the classroom anymore either. I made the same move. How, I wonder, can we create schools that will allow teachers like that to stay, grow, and innovate without leaving the profession? Should this even be a goal?
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