What Happens When We Look At What IS Working?

cartoon6393The coolest thing about teaching is that there is no one right way to do it. There are some essential components of the craft that we know work, but the innovative strategies teachers use to incorporate those essentials can vary in beautiful, creative, stylistic ways. When teachers have the opportunities to learn from each other what works for them, teacher expertise expands and student learning improves.

The same can be argued for school improvement and district policies. The GO Teacher Policy Fellows had the opportunity recently to sit down with Superintendent Antwan Wilson to discuss the state and future of Oakland schools. While we had many questions for him, he had only one for us: What is working at your school site? I appreciated the focus on our successes and decided to document some of the responses.

Here is what some of our teacher policy fellows have to say about what is working at their district and charter schools:

“The most impressive efforts at my school include daily collaboration time for teachers that is built into the schedule and expected by the administration, peer observations and evaluations, student evaluations of teachers twice a year, a professional development plan informed by teacher input, college and career pathways, full time college and career counselors (who also teach classes), a flexible and accessible administrative team, block scheduling, active student leadership, and a commitment to relevant and engaging curriculum that is all open-sourced…just to name a few!” Rachel Friedman, Instructional Lead, Civicorps

“The freedom to hire people who fit the school culture and agree with the school’s approach is one major policy that works at my school site. In conjunction with this, the school leadership has established a culture of kindness where teachers are given the benefit of the doubt. For example, if a student pushes a desk over, the school leadership helps the teacher respond appropriately and doesn’t blame the teacher for the incident. In general, if I make a mistake (which inevitably I will), I don’t feel worried that I’m going to be yelled at or punished. I know I will receive help and support instead. Teachers are also supported in several specific ways: with release time for planning and collaboration; with professional development time that allows for structured work time that aligns with the school’s goals; with administrators who offer help and ask, “What do you need?”; and with good curriculum resources paired with professional development that helps me use the resources more effectively.” –Jennie Herriot-Hatfield, Think College Now Elementary School

“This year my site has a new, first year principal. She has a clear vision – that all students can learn and that our school will make sure all learners are successful academically and socially/emotionally. In terms of making this happen, teachers have been given one 50 min. a week collaboration prep. All teachers are eager to collaborate and work well with their grade level team. There are 5 special education classes that serve students with autism, so I suggested that we form a PLC that meets once a month to modify/measure the school goals for our students. The principal is very open to building teacher leadership capacity, which has been great in terms of making sure that all teachers are using their strengths.” –Caitlin Healey, Emerson Elementary

“We created a ‘Pillar’ system, with five pillars.  Each pillar ran one portion of the PD for the month.  Every teacher was required to be on a Pillar and we had built in time in the school month to plan the upcoming PD.  The pillars were: accountability and systems, curriculum and instruction, building school capacity, intervention and culture and climate.” –Lacy Lefkowitz, Formerly at Claremont Middle School

 “Our staff is intentional in working together. While much of the staff has experience, the majority are new hires to our site this year. We seem to have started the year with a mindset of collegiality and camaraderie which has served us well to communicate openly and often.” -Cori Belew, North Oakland Community Charter School

 “The administration and support staff are incredibly strong. It is so clear that everyone on campus cares about our students, teachers, and families. Our principal and other staff members put in an incredible amount of work to make teachers’ jobs more manageable (by providing planning time, reducing paperwork, and supporting class needs) while continuously working to ensure students and families feel connected to the school. Our administration also collects and reviews feedback forms after every PD or school-wide event in an effort to encourage teacher and staff voice and to continuously grow and improve as a school.” –Emma Coufal, Think College Now Elementary School

We’d love to hear from you! What is working at your school site? What strategies from those listed here might you bring back to your school leadership and why?


Thinking Beyond Bad Teachers

Bad teachers are having their moment in the sun this summer. The message from the mainstream media right now is that teachers are the problem.

Whoopie Goldberg is a talk show host and opinionator on teacher tenure, also known as due process, who wants bad teachers fired.

Vergara v. California declares that students’ rights to an equitable education are being violated by “teacher tenure” guarantees. It is being appealed by the California Teachers Association.

Students from Fremont and Castlemont High Schools in deep East Oakland have filed a suit in Alameda County Superior Court saying that “students have been denied equal access to teaching time compared with students who attend schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods.” These students have suffered through round after round of ineffective substitutes.

We are a society that is obsessed with bad teachers. Even Cameron Diaz has staked her claim in the discourse, playing a drunk and horny teacher who wants to quit the profession to marry rich.

A more accurate, if not way more boring, version of the movie would be called Good Teacher. It would star me, the opening shot focused on my hand whacking my alarm at 6:00am, suiting up with a sensible pair of clogs so I can facilitate play during recess. All day, I am transitioning kindergarteners with autism from one 20 minute academic session to another, literally singing and dancing as I go. Then the camera would pan to me laminating individualized folder activities for 12 students, cutting out the materials that I bought myself while sitting on my sofa. I’d be wearing a fetching sweater set and an increasingly strong eye glass prescription as I finish writing an IEP late into the night – late being 9:00pm. My bedtime, like a young child’s, is 9:30. And Justin Timberlake never kisses me good night or pays my bills.

While this makes for bad cinema, it makes for good teaching. And there is a lot more good teaching going on than the media presents. Making good teachers feel eclipsed by bad-teacher-hysteria isn’t going to close the achievement gap.

Cartoon - Good T

There is no doubt that students in high-need school districts are being denied access to excellent educations. But bad teachers aren’t the root cause. Racism and classism are.

Segregation along the lines of race and class is thriving the the American public education system. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the country, and in the Bay Area, are desegregated in legislation only. Segregation widens the achievement gap.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, then we need to shift our priorities from firing bad teachers, to hiring and retaining talented teachers and desegregating schools.

We need to learn a lesson from Finland, the going gold standard of education: we need to make the standards for admittance to schools of education very high, train teachers incredibly well, support teachers in the beginning of their careers, pay teachers like professionals, accept teachers’ assessments like we would a prescription from a doctor, and make teaching a job to brag about at a cocktail party.

We need to remember Brown v. Board: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children… A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.

This is not an excuse, this is the truth: we are a nation that enslaved African-Americans 245 years. It is not a coincidence that African-American males continue to suffer the most in the public education system. The bad teacher discourse is a distraction from the reality that our political and social systems are hurting, not just our education system.

There are optimistic examples of revolutionary work to close the achievement gap that transcends the bad teacher discourse and includes acknowledging teachers who serve students tirelessly. The Harlem Children’s Zone commits to not only to academic excellence, but also to wrap around services that break patterns of poverty. Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement is doing work to coach young men outside of the classroom and is getting positive national attention.

We need to turn our attention to both cultivating and retaining a robust teaching force as we fight poverty and segregation. We need to spend time and money on preventative efforts like pre-natal care, public pre-school, and health care to close the achievement gap. We need to stop mythologizing the bad teacher and start supporting all teachers to be the best they can for their students.