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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Terry Knecht Dozier: Thoughts on the Teaching Profession

As special adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley, Terry Knecht Dozier ensures that teachers' voices are heard by the department's top policymakers.
By Terry Dozier

Terry Knecht Dozier.

Credit: Terry Dozier

Entering the Profession

I began my teaching career in 1974 at the new Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville, Florida, under a principal who was the epitome of an effective leader, John Spindler. He was a dynamic, charismatic individual whose optimism and enthusiasm were contagious.

John started a new middle school where he set up cohorts of teachers who worked with the same students and were given common planning times and office space. The whole school community fostered inclusion of teachers in planning and governance and mutual respect among teachers, administration, and students. John routinely visited all of our classrooms, not only to evaluate us but to be in touch. It was important to me to feel that the principal knew what I was doing in my classroom.

I'll never forget the night a parent called cursing me for giving her daughter a failing grade and accusing me of lacking dedication as a teacher. I called John, sobbing uncontrollably, and explained that she was coming in to see him. The next morning, he informed her that she would never speak to one of his teachers like that again. I cannot begin to tell you, as a first-year teacher, how that unquestioning support encouraged me. I credit his handling of the situation with my remaining in the classroom.

The Teachers Discuss Web site offers a place to find and comment on articles written by colleagues on important school topics.

Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Mentoring New and Continuing Teachers

It is critical that we support beginning teachers. However, I'm not convinced that the best way is through a formal mentoring program. In too many cases, the mentor does not have training, support, or interest in mentoring. Part of what made my experience work is that it wasn't artificial. It was authentic; it was real. There are mentor programs that do well, and in the absence of really restructuring our schools, programs where a trained mentor seizes responsibility for helping beginning teachers is a first important step.

I personally believe all teachers need mentoring. I would like to try to move our nation's schools in the direction of whole school mentoring, which embeds opportunities for all teachers to learn and grow in the day-to-day work they do.

During my first years of teaching, had you asked me what I was doing for professional development, it wouldn't have occurred to me to say, "Well, it's the school structure that's providing professional development for me." I would have said, "Oh, yes, my principal sent me to a reading conference." But while that was true, it was those day-to-day opportunities to interact and problem solve with my colleagues that led to my growth as a teacher. And if you had asked me if I was mentoring others, I probably would have said, "No, I'm not a mentor. I'm a brand new teacher. How can I be mentoring somebody?" But in fact I was. Certainly I shared ideas with my team, and we worked together planning curriculum and sharing information and concerns about our students.

The Role of Technology

Technology gives teachers opportunities to extend their professional networks. I'm not so naive to believe that next year all schools are going to structure the day for teachers so they have common planning periods and work with the same kids for longer than a period each day.

But through technology, teachers can reach beyond their immediate community and school to others all over the country who are struggling with the same issues. It's important for policymakers and others to learn what teachers have to say and for teachers to find other colleagues who share their passion and concern. The Department of Education has established a Web site, Teachers Discuss, where educators will find articles written by colleagues on important school topics, along with a place where they can submit their own comments.

U.S. Department of Education Initiatives

Our proposal for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is infused with programs where professional development is embedded in the day-to-day work of teachers, is a collaborative effort, and is driven by rigorous curriculum. We emphasize beginning teachers in many programs, but we believe that our programs suggest a school culture that benefits all teachers.

Terry Knecht Dozier was special adviser on teaching to the U.S. secretary of education during the Clinton administration before being elected to the board of directors of the Council for Basic Education in 2001. She has been a voice for teachers throughout her career, and was named Teacher of the Year in 1985 by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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