What If the Highest-Paid People at School Were... the Teachers?

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Barnett Berry shows a picture of himself from 1979 to a group of Arkansas teachers.

The educators laugh at the young, bright-eyed teacher, who is now president of the Center for Teacher Equality. He tells them it’s been decades since he's been in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean he is clueless about what they handle on a daily basis. He also shares where he thinks the teaching profession needs to go.

“There is a difference between those who teach and those who lead,” Berry said during the lecture for Arkansas teachers at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center.

He added, “Teachers need to transform teachers.”

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The first way to do that? Forget about calling teachers, well, teachers. Berry would rather call them “teacherpreneurs.” He sees them as having additional roles as policy researchers, assessment experts, and community organizers.

Berry envisions 600,000 well-compensated teacherpreneurs in classrooms by 2030, the year children born in 2012 graduate from high school.

He expands upon the teacherpreneurs concept in Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools, the book he penned with 12 teachers from around the country.

During his lecture, Berry points out that everything that needs to be done in America’s public school system is already being done somewhere on the planet.

“There are schools where the highest pay in the building is for a practicing teacher,” he said. “What if the highest paid person at your school was the teacher?”

According to Berry, to forge a bold path in classrooms, the old way of thinking about teachers needs to vanish. That means forgetting the early 20th century model of a single salary, or the late 20th century viewpoint of policymakers still opting for low teacher pay. Forget the Hollywood image of the teacher whose main job is to keep his or her students in line and be adored by the community.

If the federal government can change people’s behavior with smoking, it can change the way people think about teaching.

“That imagery is still in the heads of people who make decisions,” Berry said. “We must overcome the images to reform.”

Berry feels strongly that Washington must have a role in this.

“If the federal government can change people’s behavior with smoking, it can change the way people think about teaching,” he said.

He also envisions a world where teachers are ambassadors for education, public engagers, policy mavens and parent partners. They should always be learning, and to invoke Bill Clinton, they need to be bridges to the 21st century.

For example, Berry said, America’s students and educators have no choice but to fully embrace technology, and teachers should not be fearful of these changes. Berry pointed out that millions of students have access to technology via smart phones, but teachers often won’t let their students use the devices.

His theory is that teaching the “Google Way” doesn’t endanger teachers’ jobs but rather offers students the chance to learn around the clock.

By using the internet, he said, students can link to other students around the world. They can have global market preparedness. They can monitor their own learning.

For all the drastic changes needed in the teaching profession, Berry is confident it can happen.

“I’m optimistic of the future because in some ways we could have done much worse with teachers and public policy in the last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “It’s time for teachers to take back their profession.”

To fire up the crowd, Barry flashed back to 1979 and played, what he said, was one of his favorite songs from that year – “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by R&B duo McFadden & Whitehead. The teachers laughed again, and the minute he stopped speaking, surrounded Barry as if he was an education rock star.

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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com 

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