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The Business of Teaching Children Starts With Trusting Those Teaching

This is the fourth of a five-part conversation on equitable teacher distribution.

Robert Jeffers

A few years ago I visited a friend who works for Pixar Animation Studios. Coming from an under resourced inner-city school with crumbling buildings, broken water fountains, and out-of-order bathrooms what I experienced there was something of a chemical shock.

Here, cereal bars greet employees to satiate hunger, desks are raised on motors to support ergonomics, and importantly, the corporate culture yields a lot of smiling. In fact, we made a wager to see if we could find anyone who looked like they were "having a bad day" and everyone, from the security guard who greeted me upon entry to president Ed Catmull, beamed. I lost the bet. This was an organization that values ... no, cherishes their employees and in so doing creates an environment that cultivates productivity and excellence, and prizes autonomy. There's much to be learned here, but probably not what people assume.

In education, there's a growing movement toward "corporatization"politicos, pundits, and the average citizen seems romanticized by the assumed efficiencies of the corporate model. Firing may remove the bad, but that's not the same as growing the good.  I don't think potential employees are ever lured by any company's opportunity for "layoffs" or summary firings—they want growth, supports, commitment to a shared vision, teamwork to execute that vision, and certainly some perks. These are things that schools rarely, if ever, use to attract talent.

Of course, an inner-city school with a hamstrung budget cannot offer a cutting edge workout facility like Pixar, but a shared commitment to student success and a supportive team environment doesn't require money nor mandated policy. Too often, schools seem to rely on the prestige of the job itself; however, teachers, especially the excellent ones, have options and teaching at a school where administration will support them, healthy collaboration is the norm, and excellence is both expected and encouraged does more to lure away talent than the promise of high pay tempts teachers in.  

In fact, many talented teachers I know have left teaching in the most challenging of schools not for pay and certainly not for the students, but because another school offered a climate and environment conducive to excellence—an opportunity for success within the profession. For the best educators, opportunity looks like the prospect to launch or grow a community-school partnership, working on a successful collaborative team, or the possibility of leadership. And, some just don't want their teaching hindered by some arcane district policy or micromanaged by an administration that doesn't trust them for the professionals they are. One teacher I know was required to get field trip forms signed for the entire class just to walk in front of their own school for a lesson on perspective. If districts and schools want talent, you're not going to attract it this way.

Pixar doesn't access talent, they attract it, and when it arrives it typically stays a VERY long time. Ultimately, it's critical to remember that education is not some profit-driven company that can lure stars away with the promise of money. In part, this is why so many past efforts have failed. Schools that experiment with offering higher salaries and don't support the talent they hope to attract will at best yield mixed results. To borrow a term from corporate lingo, schools must emphasize the "human" in "human capital" and understand that the business of teaching children starts with valuing and trusting the people and understanding the systems that enable them to achieve.

Robert Jeffers is an LAUSD teacher in his 12th year and a teaching fellow with America Achieves. 

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