Education Opinion

Cultural Revolution

By Paula M. Evans — January 01, 1995 8 min read

When I started out as a French teacher in the late 1960s, my department head gave me three commands: “Never talk to a student before class. Be sure the books have covers. Look for gum.” I was assigned introductory courses of lower-level students. Our textbook, written in the 1940s, featured Jean-Paul, who wore knickers and wanted garden tools for his 16th birthday. My students hated French and told me so regularly. I just kept looking for gum and making sure their books were covered.

The habits I was cultivating reflected and reinforced the school’s culture. All students will take a foreign language and will speak and write acceptable French after two years with Jean-Paul. Use one method of teaching for all kids. They are, after all, basically the same anyway. You, the teacher, have the knowledge and skills. Transmit them to the kids. New teachers get the lower-track kids (Camus will have to wait), and lower-track kids get the oldest books. Keep order. Maintain decorum.

I knew better. I had been trained in one of the country’s most progressive graduate schools of education. Yet within six months, I had forgotten most of that training. The culture of the school and of the larger field of education proved far more powerful. I was learning to insist that students do as they were told, no matter what—and to do likewise myself.

And in the 1990s, I continue to watch some of our strongest student teachers repeat my same pattern. “They don’t call parents at this school, so how can I?” “I can’t arrange the chairs differently; no one else does.” “I don’t give homework. The kids aren’t allowed to take the books home.” Culture and habits still shape practice.

In the late ‘60s, “professional development” consisted of a visit from my supervisor and advice to write at the board without turning my back to the class. Such in-service programming as existed was brought to us in occasional, one-shot workshops. Expertise lodged elsewhere; we were not to generate it but to absorb and apply it. It is still very hard to find schools where the development of teachers (and the principal) is seen as a true priority and is being pursued in meaningful ways—even in schools that claim to be restructuring.

We must provide teachers and principals opportunities for growth that lead not simply to small improvements on the edge of their practice but to basic changes at its core. Restructuring does not mean coming up with new techniques. It goes far beyond any one dimension of schooling—assessment, schedule, curriculum design, or student advising. And, unfortunately, there are no clear step-by-step formulas that work in the same sequence for all schools.

There are, however, schools across the country where the culture is changing and nurturing very different habits. Teacher collaboration has become the norm within these schools. Teachers can’t imagine not teaching with a team of colleagues, not developing and constantly refining their own curriculum. It is expected that they will question themselves and their colleagues, that they will be self-critical. It is understood that everyone will take a serious interest in the well-being of his or her students and that, of course, teachers will be in touch with parents and guardians. There are few rules in many of these schools, and the ones they have make sense. And so the habits people cultivate have little to do with checking for gum and book covers and much to do with making sure that students are engaged, pushed to think hard, respectful of each other, and given regular opportunities to show what they know and can do publicly.

We have learned from the work of these pioneering schools. We know that teacher-development programs are futile unless certain core conditions obtain. If teachers can’t know their students well, for example, nothing else matters. The teacher-student load—how many kids a teacher has actual contact with—is critical. Unless the numbers are down, schools will not change. We know that our standards in schools across the country are far too low and that one of the ways to raise them is to come out of the closet, to assess students publicly, and to share student work among teachers. We know that teachers and principals, with their schools’ kids, are at the heart of it all and that community and district support are critical.

Given these understandings and the demands of a changing school culture, how do we move beyond our traditional lip service to truly link radical school change and professional development? Perhaps, most important, we begin by creating opportunities for “transformational” changes for teachers and principals, enabling them to see, feel, and experience teaching and learning and leading differently. And we reconceptualize professional development so that it is continuing, intensive, and encourages risk-taking by both participants and leaders.

It isn’t enough to come together and have a good talk; we need to be jolted. Many teachers and principals have not experienced themselves what it means to be pushed intellectually, to exhibit knowledge publicly, to generate knowledge. Adults must experience that firsthand in order to change their thinking about teaching, curriculum, standards, and the role of students. Yes, we do need to give people tools and strategies and examples, but, even more important, people need the opportunity of working through for themselves what it means to develop authentic assessment, to structure the program differently for kids, to forgo the $45 anthology that kids aren’t allowed to take home and purchase instead a series of paperback novels.

The Coalition of Essential Schools has opted to concentrate significant resources on the development of a core of teachers and principals who can then work with their colleagues out in the field. Called the National Re:Learning Faculty, this network of some 200 teachers, principals, and superintendents focuses on classroom and whole-school change—raising standards for all students, creating coherent, integrated curricula, redesigning assessment to meet clear goals. The faculty then shares this knowledge with colleagues.

Our goal is to build a network of practitioners committed to coaching or assisting their colleagues to restructure classrooms and schools based on the common principles of the coalition. These practitioners do not come into a school with a series of set workshops but rather spend time getting to know the school well. They then work with teachers and administrators over time on issues and concerns that they together have identified as central to their restructuring work.

After five years, we are seeing across the United States places where Re:Learning faculty members are assuming the leadership of teacher development in support of restructuring. Beginning where it makes the most sense, in their own schools and those nearby, they are helping shape the implementation of school reform locally, regionally, and nationally.

In the course of this work, we have learned some lessons:

• Teacher development must have a clear focus. We have chosen to concentrate on classroom and school practice. This emphasis has given our work direction and kept us honest. Others may take a different course, but the focus has to be clear and unambiguous.

• Outside perspective—a “third eye” or “critical friend”—can really help teachers and principals in their work. It is sometimes very hard to work within one’s own school, and an outsider—particularly a credible, informed outsider—can play a crucial helping role.

• Practitioners are the most credible helpers. Consultants and “experts” may be good, but it makes a huge difference when those who design and lead professional development programs have had recent, direct experiences of change in their own classrooms and schools. Moreover, when practitioners lead the work, the learning is reciprocal.

• Relationships are key. There is no substitute for the opportunity to work, over time, with colleagues. Change is relationship-intensive and must be nourished by long-standing connections and commitments.

• Real change requires sustained support. No matter how enlightening a seminar or consultation, if there is not a continuing group at a teacher’s home school, innovation falters. Wherever teachers or principals feel isolated, we hear, “I feel overwhelmed. I can’t do this work. It’s too much.”

• Critical mass matters. Clusters of schools and networks of like-minded colleagues encourage and support school change. They provide sustenance and new knowledge about practice, school structure, and school program for each other. Similarly, good national support nurtures local change. A larger network can add useful leverage to good local work. For example, teachers in Chicago who are linked to colleagues across the country—through a vibrant e-mail network and at least yearly conferences or institutes—may have a more powerful voice in their own community.

There are clear gaps in the work of restructuring and professional development over which we still puzzle. Most immediately, we have not figured out how to build in regular opportunities for practitioners to reflect, read, and write. And we haven’t figured out how to nurture the political savvy that is required to permit schools to restructure. Too often, we leave the work of educating the school board, the legislature, and the public to others. That strategy is not helpful. Teachers and principals must somehow be party to the political context in which they work.

Rethinking schooling is challenging. It’s hard. It’s exhilarating. It requires imagination, strength, courage, and perseverance. Already we have come a far distance from checking for chewing gum and book covers. We might just make a difference.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Cultural Revolution