Teaching is hard. We know this. As administrators, we have been teachers; we observe, coach, and support teaching every day. But do we—the educational decision makers—keep the complexity of teaching at the forefront of our minds as we make our decisions?

Perhaps a serious attempt to take stock of what “teaching” has become is exactly what we need. Such a framework would help administrators and superintendents more skillfully approach decision making about expectations for teachers and about their role in public education.

What Does the Research Say?

The research literature between 2010–20 described teaching as professional practice that can be captured within 13 broad competencies and practices.

  • Know Students: Get to know individual students deeply in a range of dimensions, and use that knowledge to drive professional decisions. Know each student’s name and pronounce it correctly. Know your students’ past and current learning progress, and factors that may impact their learning.
  • Know Your Subject Matter: Hold, demonstrate, and expand strong content knowledge. Researchers found, particularly at the secondary level, that a teachers’ level of content knowledge impacts student achievement.
  • Demonstrate Pedagogical Expertise: Understand and enact effective professional practices related to instruction. Teaching includes a grasp of the theory of the work—such as understanding the ways knowledge is produced and knowing the way students think, anticipating common errors and misconceptions, anticipating multiple zones of proximal development, and considering how instruction is likely to impact a variety of students.
  • Plan for Practice: Employ routine, strategic, thoughtful planning for short- and long-term action. Plans should include questions to ask, assessments, activities to enact, and contingency plans.
  • Create a Learning Environment: Build up strategic, continuous action to create and maintain an environment optimally conducive to learning. Nurture a classroom culture that values the individual for their uniqueness and prioritizes healthy interactions over social (and anti-social) behavior.
  • Engage Students in Learning: Implement activities designed to actively engage students. Set high expectations for all students through various means, including the design and implementation of engaging, cognitively demanding learning activities.
  • Implement Effective Strategies: Know which specific instructional strategies work well to support learning and enact them. Teaching is not the implementation of any particular strategy, but the expertise to decide which strategy to implement under any given set of circumstances.
  • Provide Authentic Learning Experiences: Design and implement learning activities that are meaningful and relevant to students. Emphasize learning that goes beyond knowledge acquisition and is relevant to students immediately and as a basis for future learning and action.
  • Support Learning: Identify and provide a wide range of supports to advance student learning. Teaching is not merely the passive dispensing of knowledge but requires teachers to design or implement structures to ensure all students learn.
  • Monitor Learning: Actively and continuously monitor the degree to which students are learning. Create structures and practices that seek evidence of student learning.
  • Provide Feedback: Continuously provide specific, descriptive, individual feedback to students about their learning. Grades are a form of feedback but are far from adequate alone. Feedback takes a range of forms, including just-in-time comments, written descriptive feedback, and marks.
  • Know and Follow Laws and Policies: Possess an active familiarity and compliance with relevant federal, state, and local laws and policies. Educational law and policy demand compliance as integral to continued classification as a teacher in good standing.
  • Reflect on Practice: Practice a continuous, deep reflection on professional practice for improvement. Reflection is critical to effective teaching and continued professional growth.

These practices are interwoven yet distinct. Taken together, though, these parts of teaching describe a profession that’s immensely complex.

What Do Teachers Say?

What is teaching—as lived by teachers? While researching for my dissertation, I interviewed teachers. They were asked to describe teaching as they know it, and then review and comment on how research defines teaching. The majority of descriptions of their teaching reflected one or more of the 13 competencies and practices previously described. Every teacher mentioned knowing subject matter, planning for practice, and implementing effective strategies as part of their practice. All but two identified knowing students and engagement as an essential part of their practice. These patterns suggested that these five areas remain at the forefront of teachers’ minds.

The theme that emerged most clearly was the crushing weight of teaching. As one teacher described it, “Over the weekend, my teaching walks with me. It lives with me in the shower. It rides with me in the car.” Some explicitly mentioned burnout; others revealed deeply pessimistic perspectives about the profession or the cost they pay to engage in effective practice.

“A big problem is the time that you have to invest to be good. To be mediocre, I could do a whole lot less. I’m not saying that I’m anybody’s star teacher at all. But I notice that I’m never finished. There’s always something to do,” noted one participant. “And even if every paper was graded, every grade updated, every parent was contacted, there’s something else that I could have been doing or I should have been doing, so it’s never over. I think it’s important to remember the time factor, and that there is so much required of us.”

We noticed that every practice outlined in the literature is expected of teachers, but there is simply—and literally—not enough time in a calendar week (much less within a teacher’s contract hours) to do all 13 things. Teachers almost always have a long list of duties to discharge that are not part of teaching. However, teachers in this study suggested that even if they were released from all nonteaching responsibilities, the job would still be overwhelming.

What Does It All Mean?

The teaching profession—and perhaps public education itself—faces an existential crisis due to a disappearing workforce. Teaching is an immensely complex job, and the mismatch between that complexity and the autonomy, voice, status, and compensation teachers are afforded is plain. Given this research-based support for the notion that teaching is radically complex, consider five recommendations for action.

  1. Recognize and acknowledge the complexity. Educational decision makers must see the complexity of teaching for what it is. Strongly reject tendencies to characterize teachers’ voicing of concerns as complaining. Consider ways to frame your dialogue beyond the clichéd “Thanks for all you do.”
  2. Adopt a snapshot to guide your thinking as a leader. We struggle with holding the complexity of our accumulated expectations in our heads all at once. A map of the whole of teaching is likely to provide valuable perspective and better anchor us in our work because we can only be in one part of the area at any given time. I offer the visual above (based on the research) as a place to start.
  3. Examine every decision through the lens of the complexity of teaching. Decisions that are sound in isolation may be less ideal in the context of the greater picture. Far from timidity in decision making, I am recommending skillfulness in tone, temper, and tact.
  4. Move beyond recruitment and mentoring. One common response to rising teacher attrition has been implementation of teacher mentoring programs. Work to create schools and districts that acknowledge that complex problems require powerful solutions. Look to other professions for inspiration on how to acknowledge and support the heavy workload. Look to other educational systems for inspiration on how to retain accomplished teachers.
  5. Help professionalize teaching. All the actions above help improve working conditions for teachers. But the research and current trends in practice suggest that the future of public education in this country rests heavily on the rapid and complete professionalization of teaching. Roadmaps for this work have been suggested by others already. For example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards recently launched Teachers 2020 Bill of Rights, a campaign that calls for teachers to be provided sufficient resources, meaningful professional growth experiences, voice and leadership opportunities, and compensation commensurate with the complexity of the job.

Until the complexity of teaching is recognized, the existing pool of teaching talent to your school and district will continue to dry up quickly. We should fight for the type of fundamental change that will reverse that trend and elevate the profession.

Andrew Maxey, PhD, is the director of strategic initiatives for Tuscaloosa City Schools in Tuscaloosa, AL.