Education Opinion

Teach ‘Em Until They Learn

By Nancy Flanagan — August 07, 2011 4 min read
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(From the airport in Memphis) The Teacher in a Strange Land has been crisscrossing the country for the past couple of weeks, bouncing from the inspiring, once-in-a-generation experience of the Save Our Schools March to a focused, productive teacher leadership workshop in northern Wisconsin (which included an all-American evening hanging around at the Packers’ practice field and eating cheese curds). I spent the last three days in the deep South, working at a turnaround school.

Quel contraste, as they say in Louisiana.

As often happens, although I was nominally the “presenter,” I probably got more out of the work than the teachers who were supposed to be on the receiving end of what I had to offer. Simply being in the room with the component elements of a turnaround staff was a sociological eye-opener.

There was the new, dynamic principal, her professional reputation on the line, charged with gutting and rebuilding a school with a public history of failure, and, oh yeah, reviving hope in an economically depressed community. There was the mandated less-than-50% of returning staff, tainted--undeservedly--with the aura of How Things Used to Be, but also the repository of contextual knowledge of the kids, their families and the community. There was a group of accomplished, eager veteran teachers who transferred in, looking for a new challenge. And there were the rank novices, including a few Teach for America corps members, relying on sound bites, training and bravado.

A pretty fair representation of schools now carrying out the US Department of Ed’s Grand Plan for fixing schools where “outcomes” (read: test scores) have been low, Turnaround Division. Turnarounds are the option preferable to Re-starting (read: handing a public school off to a charter operator), Closing (read: destroying a school community) or Transforming (read: trying to revive a dispirited staff through the magic of “professional development,” which may or may not have a salutary effect on those all-important scores). While I was there, the summer testing data arrived, and the numbers weren’t good. Nowhere to go but up.

And then there was the building itself, which reeked, literally, of neglect--from broken, filthy blinds (essential for shutting out the hot glare of the sun) to gummy floors to mismatched windows with security mesh embedded. The kindergarten “playground"--a crumbling concrete square--looked like a prison yard, and the auditorium floor was littered with broken glass. Boxes of unused teaching materials, ordered decades ago, were stacked everywhere. The principal told me that 90% of her workday since she was hired, in June, has been taken up with a frustrating quest to get some action on urgent and critical facility needs.

Teachers were hauling years’ worth of dusty trash into the hallways, armed with disinfecting wipes, spray cleaner and contact paper. Interactive white boards had been used as bulletin boards; teachers were exchanging tips on removing tape residue and whose husband had the power drill to put up shower board from Home Depot over old, cracked chalkboards.

The school has adopted the National Board’s Take One! model for professional development, which will push all staff members to critically examine the impact of their own teaching. It was hard to get teachers (whose first impulse was to create a welcoming classroom) to generate some enthusiasm for planning units, to think about the DNA of effective teaching. The urgency of school starting overwhelmed the critical importance of conversations about instruction and evaluating learning.

But then--there was this moment, late on Friday afternoon...

Teachers had worked all day in grade-level groups, trying to plan rich, arts-infused lessons with a mixed bag of colleagues who were virtually strangers. The kind of deep trust needed to share ideas without fear-- positive assumptions about colleagues and their skills--was patchy. Groups were bumping along, politely, but the work was not smooth. It was hard for teachers break out of the “just tell me what to do” mindset that educators have grown accustomed to--but resent.

A teacher raised her hand and asked the principal: “Are we getting pacing charts for the math and reading series?” Under her breath she added--"or can we teach them until they actually learn it?”

The principal said: No pacing charts.

The room, which had been quietly buzzing, went still. The teacher (a veteran) said, “Let me ask that again, so we’re clear. Are we going to be forced to use pacing charts, or will we be able to teach concepts until the kids really get it?”

Same answer: No pacing charts. Examine the evidence of student learning, and use your best judgment about what to do next.

There was a heartbeat of silence. Then the room erupted in applause. Re-energized, teachers moved forward with lesson creation, shared some great ideas and left singing We Are Family. Really.

What happened in that room is a perfect illustration of how top-down policy-making impacts teachers who volunteer to work in our toughest schools.

In language that Arne Duncan might understand, sometimes Aaron Rodgers passes to the intended receiver--but sometimes he has to use his best judgment about what to do next.

It’s about trust, team-building and professional decision-making. Laissez les bon temps roulez--and pass the cheese curds.

[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions.]

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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