Teachers in Lower Grades are Less Qualified. Right?

Teachers in Lower Grades are Less Qualified.  Right?

I heard recently from a very highly respected educational leader that excellent teaching is excellent teaching, regardless of grade level or content area. I suspect that if asked, most teachers would agree with this powerful statement. However, in practice, many of the upper grade practitioners in our field tend to view those in lower grades as somehow less qualified.  Elementary teachers, have you ever been made to feel that your work is not as critical as that of middle and/or high school teachers? I have recently made the transition to high school after teaching for several years at the middle school level. On more than a handful of occasions, I felt that my work was perceived as less vital than my high school peers.

This morning, ESPN ran an interesting piece on College Game Day called “Coaching Up.” It highlighted three head coaches currently in the Top 10 who also coached at the high school level: Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), and Art Briles (Baylor). Just nine years ago, Gus Malzahn was coaching at the high school level and as the segment reminds us, “Auburn played for the national title in his second year as head coach.” While this route to the oversized world of college football is rare, all three attributed their success in large part to their experience at the high school level. Malzahn said that early in his time at Auburn, he would commonly hear negative comments: “high school this and high school that,” but he goes on to say “I took great pride in that…it gave me the foundation to do what I do at the college level.” My favorite quote came from Art Briles: “I’ve always viewed coaches as coaches, regardless of the level. Doesn’t matter whether you’re playin’ on Sunday or Friday night.” This resonates so strongly with me!

Many of my peers warned me about the shock I would undergo by making the transition from middle to high school. I even received well-intentioned jabs like “Are you sure can handle high school?” First, let me acknowledge that I have not been in my current role long enough to point to any kind of particular success. I may eventually prove to be an epic failure. However, I can say with absolute confidence that the richest source of positive results thus far has been my experience as a successful middle school teacher.

Recently, I participated in a parent/teacher conference led by a first grade teacher. It was one of the most professionally managed meetings of any kind I have ever been involved in. I am certain you have at some point heard a snide comment about a young woman teaching elementary school referred to as having an “MRS” degree. The irony is that most of those ignorant enough to make such a comment would not last one day in a successful elementary classroom.

A master teacher in any area at any grade level will motivate and engage students using varied strategies. They will pace briskly and differentiate. Their questioning will fall across the classifications of Bloom’s taxonomy as appropriate. They will encourage peer engagement, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Most importantly, they will care about their students. Finally, they will operate with professionalism. Certainly these things cannot be said of every teacher. But they can be said of many more than you might expect. And most of these characteristics connect only to the craft of sound instruction. There are several other leadership and administrative elements required in order for a teacher to be successful. When you see master teaching at a variety of grade levels and in a variety of content areas, the similarities are far greater than the differences.

Consider this. If a teacher, coach, or director is achieving excellence with less mature students who have received less training, would it not be a logical conclusion that they are at least an equally effective teacher, if not more effective than their peers working with more mature students with more training? Never before have those of us in education needed to operate as a team than in the current climate. We must be the biggest supporters of our peers, regardless of grade level or content area. We ought to be sources of encouragement for our colleagues. And for those who are new to the profession, we must remember whence we came. We all learned from failure. In no other field are first-year practitioners expected to operate under the same expectations as a thirty-year veteran. The best of us are striving to be professionals under less than ideal circumstances. We are all in it together. As I’ve said many times before, I am every bit as proud to serve as an educator as I ever was to serve as a uniformed soldier.

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