In America, the debates over teachers and their profession have been raucous, especially of late. But the struggles (over who enters teaching, how they are prepared, and how they are paid) are anchored in 20th-century policies based on 19th-century principles of student learning.

Many reformers propose a “superhero fix” for our highest-need schools, placing young recruits in challenging classrooms for just a few years. However well-intentioned, it’s a solution that dodges the real problem: teaching in the 21st century is complex, challenging work. And we need millions of well-prepared, highly savvy teachers who teach in schools designed to spread their expertise—whether with colleagues down the hall or in virtual communities. If we truly want the profession to benefit our students, we must reframe the reform narrative. We must enact aggressive policies driven by a new vision for teaching and learning.

Reimagining Teaching and Learning

Over the last decade, the Center for Teaching Quality has evolved a great deal. We began as a think tank to advance the teaching profession, and we’re now an action tank that cultivates teacher leadership for 21st-century schools. I have had the privilege of working closely with an expanding group of classroom experts in our virtual community, the Teacher Leaders Network, which now includes more than 1,200 educators.

With generous support from the MetLife Foundation, I have undertaken a remarkable intellectual journey with 12 of these accomplished teachers. We co-authored a book on the future of teaching and learning, TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools—Now and in the Future. We looked forward 20 years, when today’s young teachers will be middle-aged, hopefully still teaching while also leading their profession. (And having the time, space, and rewards necessary to fulfill both roles.) My co-authors and I reached for fresh “third way” solutions that transcend current policy debates: ideas that not only address the issues we see today, but also anticipate the trends predicted to shape education tomorrow.

Our team determined that effective teachers (now and in the future) must know how to:

  • Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find out almost everything with a few taps of the finger;
  • Work with a student body that’s increasingly diverse (by 2030, at least 40 percent of students will be second-language learners);
  • Prepare kids to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving are the “new basics”;
  • Use sophisticated tools to measure student learning and fine-tune instruction; and
  • Connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic churn creates instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning.

In our book, we envision how new technologies and transformed school organizations can elevate the teaching profession. We highlight promising ideas from reformers and practitioners on different sides of today’s debate. We present robust ways in which education could respond to likely future events. These “emergent realities,” as we call them, reveal how schools — and the teaching profession — could change to better meet 21st-century demands:

Emergent Reality 1

foresees a transformed learning environment in which digital tools allow students to learn 24/7 and to develop in-demand skills. Many of the same tools allow teachers to learn from each other anywhere, at any time. And — as importantly — such technologies help teachers share more accurate data about student learning with policymakers and the public, boosting accountability.

Emergent Reality 2

posits that expert teachers will create seamless connections between learning in cyberspace and in brick-and-mortar schools. These educators know how to reach the “iGeneration” student and how to serve as community organizers. Even as online learning explodes, an unstable economy and growing socioeconomic divides will require that teacher-leaders build strong school-community partnerships, connecting students and their families with a wide range of integrated services.

Emergent Reality 3

envisions differentiated professional pathways that allow teachers with different skills and career trajectories to maximize their respective strengths. Educators will operate within career matrices, not old-school hierarchical ladders. Schools will employ an intricate array of specialists and generalists. Some will teach for only a few years. Some may teach solely or partially in online settings. However, schools (even high-need schools) will be led by those who are committed to teaching for the long haul. Every school will be anchored by a core group of accomplished teachers who know deeply the students and families they serve.

Emergent Reality 4

predicts the need to develop 600,000 “teacherpreneurs.” These are effective teachers who continue to work with students regularly, but also have the time, supports, and rewards necessary to apply their expertise in other ways. For example, teacherpreneurs may mentor new teachers, design new instructional programs based on gaming technologies, orchestrate community partnerships, or advance new policies and practices. Teacherpreneurs will be the “highest-paid anybodies” in a school district—and their roles will finally blur the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead.

Levers for Transformation

We cannot transform our schools unless we first imagine major changes to the profession of teaching. Yet, reversing teaching’s complicated history will be challenging. The profession’s past has been marked by a lack of clarity and rigor in becoming a teacher, as well as limited prestige and income. Teachers have been siloed in classrooms, sequestering the pedagogical expertise and muffling the policy voices of our best practitioners.

Looking forward, I see six interlocking levers of change that will be crucial to creating the 21st-century teaching profession that students deserve:

  • Invest in public engagement. We must help the public understand that teaching is complex work and that investing in teacher development, support, and compensation will benefit students.
  • Rethink school finance systems. Doing so can help us to ensure equity, drive the integrated delivery of services, and encourage new partnerships among school districts, universities, health and social-service agencies, and community-based organizations.
  • Redefine teacher preparation and licensing, drawing on performance assessments to determine who is ready to teach and in which contexts.
  • Cultivate improved working conditions that make high-need schools easier to staff, providing the resources, time, tools, and access to expertise necessary to teach effectively.
  • Reframe accountability to promote 21st-century student learning. Use indicators that not only identify which schools are more effective, but also why, and what needs to done next to improve teaching and learning.
  • Transform teachers’ unions into professional guilds with expectations that their members meet rigorous performance metrics and that the skills of the most effective teachers are brokered both locally and globally.

We understand that such profound changes will require the cultivation of political will and technical know-how. But we also are certain that many teachers, and their advocates, are frustrated with the status quo. They are ready to pull reform out of the 20th-century debates. They are prepared to push policymakers, practitioners, and the public to think differently about what it takes to educate all children to meet the demands of the global economy and the civic responsibilities of our democracy.

TEACHING 2030 coauthor Renee Moore from the Mississippi Delta put it best:

“We stand on the cusp of a great opportunity to end generations of educational discrimination and inequity, finally to fulfill the promises of our democratic republic. I believe the noblest teachers, students, and leaders of 2030 will be remembered by future generations as those who surged over the barriers to true public education and a fully realized teaching profession—while myopic former gatekeepers staggered to the sidelines of history.”

Barnett Berry is founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina. He authored "TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools ... Now and in the Future" (Teachers College Press, 2011) with 12 accomplished teachers from across the United States.