Growing up, like so many young males of color, I dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. I wanted to be the next Tony Dorsett, the great Dallas Cowboys running back. To me, what he did on the field was magic. I thought he had superpowers, and that maybe, in time, I too would fly, scale walls, or at least hurdle defensive lineman.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I would never be Tony Dorsett. But that didn’t mean I had nothing to learn from his recipe for success. While he was obviously athletically gifted, his success on the field was made possible by his dedication, hard work, great coaching, and support from his teammates.
The same is true in educating America’s children, the field I entered after college and still work in today.
There is an almost unexplainable excitement when a student, for the first time, understands the powerful symbolism behind a Robert Frost poem. Or when a child looks through a telescope and sees the detailed shadows of the moon’s craters.
I have worked in education for more than 20 years, and I still search, every day, for ways to create these magical moments. It is what drives everything I do. This is as true for me and my colleagues at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as it was for my fellow teachers at J.P. McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, Pa.
But I also know that, just as Tony Dorsett was not a mythical superhero with a football in his hand, there is no pixie dust for great teaching. Super-powered classrooms require hardworking, learning-oriented teachers, and support systems that fortify those teachers with tools, better feedback on their performance, and resources and opportunities to collaborate with their peers. It’s not magic; it is a matter of many people working together to achieve a shared goal—that all of our students will be successfully prepared for their futures.
Before I came to the Gates Foundation, I heard a lot about its education work. As a former teacher, I felt that the foundation and its partners were focused on the right things: rigorous core curricula, reliable and valid evaluation systems, and tools and supports that allow teachers and students to shine. At the same time, one of the concerns that I had was over the negative tone of the national conversation about teachers, which some felt that those involved in education improvement efforts had helped spread. When I got here, however, I saw only how passionate everyone was about giving teachers the tools to design the future for their profession and their students.
A few months ago, I was part of a gathering the Gates Foundation hosted for a number of our grantees working in education, many of them teachers. Called ECET2: Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers, this was a chance for our partners and teachers to showcase the great teaching that is happening across the country and to highlight the policies necessary to support those efforts. But we also wanted to equip teachers with effective tools, materials, and networks so they could push these efforts forward in their home communities. We wanted to do all of this by ensuring teachers were in the lead, sharing their practices with one another.
During our gathering, we discussed the tools and resources that would help teachers network with one another, we guided teachers in designing their own approaches to improve their practice, and we worked with them to expand their understanding of how to keep students engaged.
We shared ideas for creating new lesson plans aligned to the Common Core State Standards. And we left energized about how we could continue this conversation and help ensure every teacher across the country has access to quality collaboration opportunities with peers.
In fact, one teacher, Christine Snyder, shared a life-changing moment she experienced during the three-day program:
“Before ECET2, I literally had no perception of my teacher identity outside my individual classroom. It was like I actually saw myself in the way we joke our students do: a real person in my classroom, but a shadow once I left it. ECET2 did nothing less than stand me in front of the mirror and reflect back my true identity and my real context. The scales fell from my eyes: I am a valuable member of a vibrant professional community. We call it ‘PD’ so much that we forget what the acronym stands for. ECET2 helped me reclaim the ‘P.’ To put it simply, ECET2 gave me back to myself.”
Teachers like Christine are hungry for the chance to collaborate, share ideas, and participate in professional development that will help them meet their personal and professional goals.
I hear this a lot in my travels around the country, and multiple surveys confirm it. Last year, teachers gave their views on education in Primary Sources, a poll of teachers released by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation. When asked what would help keep them in the teaching profession, teachers ranked more time for collaboration and quality professional development ahead of salary increases or greater decision-making roles.
Don’t get me wrong: We believe great teachers need financial rewards linked to career ladders, and they need the opportunities to exercise their unique skills and grow in the profession without leaving the classroom. However, what teachers want most is the chance to collaborate and participate in ways that will improve their ability to help more children succeed. That is, after all, the main reason most became teachers in the first place.
Teachers also tell us they are hungry for evaluation systems that do a better job helping them understand how they are performing in the classroom. Our Measures of Effective Teaching project worked with 3,000 teachers to get at the core of this understanding. We just released the culminating findings from MET, which show that the most reliable way to evaluate teachers is through a combination of classroom observations by multiple reviewers, student surveys of the classroom environment, and growth in student test scores. We are now working with teachers and school districts to use these findings and create teacher development and evaluation systems that are fair and reliable—and most importantly, help teachers improve.
We also learned at ECET2 that these amazing teachers can do even bigger, bolder things when they have the flexibility to experiment and are given the resources to share what they learn with others. In fact, during the ECET2 conference, teachers flocked to sessions focused on innovative professional development, and on how to use new tools and resources to improve their teaching practice. But we know innovation is not only for teachers. Amazing things can also happen when we reinvent how teachers and students come together to learn.
Every day, teachers are finding innovative ways to engage and reach students, like flipping classrooms so that students listen to lectures at home and participate in interactive activities and discussions during school hours. Teachers are capturing students’ interest and imagination by incorporating game-based learning to engage students who are hands-on learners, who enjoy the challenge of a video game, or who need more action in their learning. Others are using adaptive computer programs to personalize learning and gauge students’ understanding of “deep practices” associated with the common standards.
But today, great teaching practices are often isolated. That’s why the Gates Foundation is investing in groundbreaking instructional tools and resources to help teachers share what works. Projects like the Teaching Channel, the Literacy Design Collaborative, and the Math Design Collaborative enable teachers to build on their peers’ knowledge and experiences, particularly around the instructional imperatives like common core.
Thousands of teachers are also participating in Student Achievement Partners’ and the Council of Great City Schools’ Basal Alignment Project working groups on the social media platform EdModo. And the resource-sharing site BetterLesson recently announced a Master Teacher Project designed to connect teachers to measurably improve instruction.
We want to keep the momentum and collaboration we experienced at ECET2 alive. We are working with teachers to plan regional meetings going forward because we want every teacher to feel supported. And we want every child to look within and find the magic. When we have the opportunity to speak with teachers and to see the work our grantees are doing on the ground, we are energized about the opportunity to make success a reality in every classroom.
At the Gates Foundation, we often call ourselves impatient optimists. We are impatient because we see the struggles children and families face in the United States and around the world—and we are deeply committed to searching for ways to support and empower them. But we are also optimistic about the future for these children and families because of the work of our grantees and other partners.
I am optimistic about what we can all do for our nation’s children. We know this is incredibly hard work, and we do not have all the answers. But we believe in the power of education to transform lives. That is why we are so committed to this work. It is also why we are committed to learning from research, as well as from teachers, students, and administrators and other partners—and ensuring our strategies are meeting our end goal: to help all students succeed beyond high school.
I’m optimistic because I know there is a little bit of Tony Dorsett in all of us—in our students, in our parents, in our teachers, and in our education leaders. Just as it wasn’t magic that made my idol fly down the field, it isn’t magic that unlocks our potential as teachers. It takes hard work, dedication, collaboration, skills, supports, tools, and valuable feedback. So, at the foundation we are trying to take the mystery out of what great teachers do so that more teachers can learn from what works and enable more students to succeed.
Editors’ note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides support for coverage of business and innovation in Education Week. Education Week and Education Week Teacher retain sole editorial control over the content of their coverage.