Elevating the Teaching Profession
in New Orleans

May 26, 2016

Excellent schools do not exist without excellent teachers. But bringing high-quality teachers into New Orleans public schools remains a persistent challenge. And it’s not just here—across the country, teacher preparation programs report declining enrollment, baby boomer generation teachers are poised to retire, and even alternative track programs like Teach for America are seeing a drop in applications.

One step we are taking to address this challenge is to shine a light on the outstanding teachers in our community through the New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award, which we launched last year.

In addition to recognizing our fantastic teachers, we hoped this award would elevate teaching as one of the most attractive jobs in New Orleans, and thus encourage new people to pursue the path of classroom teaching.

Yesterday, we celebrated each of the 2016 finalists and award winners (pictured above). They represent 20 of the most dedicated teachers and leaders who will make it possible for New Orleans to become the highest performing urban school district in the country.

We also sat down recently with the 2015 winners  to tap their wisdom about how to elevate the teaching profession.  While not all of them could join us, those that did, Tara Coleman of Esperanza Charter School, Susan Harvey of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, Jamie Irish of KIPP Renaissance High School, and Troy Lawson of Lawrence Crocker College Prep, shared their perspectives about what needs to change to make teaching a more appealing job for both new college graduates and seasoned professionals.

Three Ways We Can Elevate the Teaching Profession

Increase positive press about teachers and their impact

Our award winning teachers told us that social media and the traditional press can go far in making teachers feel recognized and changing how the teaching profession is viewed. When the 2015 New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Awards were announced in the local media, Tara Coleman was sought out as a resource for other special educators, which made her feel like a valuable professional. Troy Lawson said he received several congratulatory messages (including one from his orthodontist) that reassured him others value his hard work in the classroom. We need to make sure that all New Orleans teachers feel this kind of recognition, not just the few singled out for an award.

Look at teacher compensation

Our awardees demonstrate an almost boundless commitment to their students and their profession. Jamie Irish was late to our meeting because he was tutoring a math student, while another of the award-winning teachers made a detour to drop off a forgotten assignment at a student’s home. When most professionals have quit for the day, teachers are often still in the classroom or working at home to prep and grade papers. Yet their pay reflects neither the hours teachers devote to their students nor the emotional challenges and intellectual complexities of teaching. If we want teachers like our awardees in every classroom, we need to think about how to compensate them to value their tremendous work, allow them to sustain their families, and to pursue their dreams.

Make staying in the classroom prestigious

Often, excellent educators do not stay in the classroom for long because they look to administrative or instructional coaching roles as the next step on the career ladder. But what if schools made staying in the classroom as prestigious as going into school administration? This was an idea that resonated with our teacher award winners, who suggested creating salaries for excellent teachers that are on par with administrative salaries, or compensating teachers for mentoring new hires. Some of these ideas are relatively low cost, but would go a long way toward adding to a teacher’s prestige on campus and helping retain the best teachers in New Orleans classrooms.

The bottom-line

We need to listen to teachers if we are going to keep our excellent professionals in the classroom and convince others to make a difference in New Orleans schools. NSNO estimates our city will have to recruit as many as 900 teachers a year by 2020. Our teacher awardees started the conversation by calling out three steps we must take to elevate the role of teachers in our city:  increase positive stories about teachers in the media, reconsider how teachers are compensated, and look for ways to make teaching a top profession in New Orleans.