Equity & Diversity Opinion

Building Great Classrooms, One Teacher at a Time

By Richard Whitmire — October 31, 2011 4 min read
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Note: This is a guest post by Darryl Williams, principal of the Brighter Choice Charter Schools for Boys’ elementary and middle school programs in Albany, New York.

Have you ever visited “that” classroom? You know, the classroom that makes you say, “I wish my son was in this classroom.” Scholars are raising their hands; eager to provide answers their beloved teacher has posed. The teacher is systematically and deliberately moving about the room, carefully using opportunities to inspire and motivate the most timid scholars. Scholars smile and “raise the roof,” when they provide a “college-bound” response to one of those meticulously crafted questions the teacher offers.

The energy and engagement in “that” room is profound; almost surreal. Yet, if we look closely in many of our urban public schools, you will almost undoubtedly find at least one great teacher. Unfortunately though, for most of our young African American and Latino males, the challenge will continue to be replicating great teachers and great classrooms in all of our urban schools. Fortunately for me, Brighter Choice had several of those classrooms for my own son when we opted to “raise the rigor” on his educational experience.

As an elementary and middle school principal, I’ve found it necessary to refrain from engaging too closely with the federal initiatives aimed at saving our scholars and families from the poor educations they have come to expect from their surrounding public schools. I can appreciate the national call for accountability and push for results from America’s schools. However, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, both well-intentioned initiatives, fall short in addressing the single most important factor contributing to our boys’ success in school--great teaching! Our focus at Brighter Choice is, and always will be, cultivating and developing strong teachers.

As my good friend and colleague, Dan Cotton asserts, “Great teachers can be developed through quality coaching and feedback.” We have taken the position that we must systematically build great teachers one classroom at a time. In addition to providing ongoing professional development for our teachers using Doug Lemov’s Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices, we are also attempting to capture and catalog the deliberate self-questioning and planning our great teachers engage in. “If Jahlil begins to fade, I’ll need to challenge him during seminar with leading our moral/ethical discussion. I have to develop a prompt for him to get us started.” Yes, the great teachers think through specific situations for specific scholars because every scholar will learn in their classroom. “When introducing the meaning of multiplication, I have to be sure to show the relationship between equal groups and arrays without confusing my scholars.”

Yes, the great teachers are always thinking through the most effective way to introduce and deliver their content. The issue plaguing our urban schools is that many of our teachers are young, inexperienced and are not yet able to think and prepare like a great teacher. Or, our teachers are old, experienced, but not yet able to think and prepare like a great teacher.

We have commenced videotaping the planning phases of lessons and the execution of effective portions of these lessons. Our goal is to provide our more novice and developing teachers concrete examples of the self-questioning that great teachers do prior to providing effective instruction. The great teacher is truly deliberate and calculated in all they do--down to the wink that she gives her most challenging scholar when he exceeds her expectations. The challenge is to get all teachers serving our boys to think, plan, prepare and execute as the great teachers we see in some of our urban classrooms.

Through increased feedback, coaching, ongoing professional development, and systematic exposure to the habits of preparation (and execution), we can continue to build great teachers. We understand that the success of our scholars is primarily dependent on the quality of teaching they receive everyday they are with us.

Our Work is Just Beginning...

While we have continued to be one of the highest performing schools in the state, we understand that research (and history) has clearly demonstrated that our minority males are destined for failure if they do not experience great teaching every year that they are in school. Brighter Choice exists to alter a history of injustice in Albany that, in many cases, has only been experienced by the demographic we proudly serve. Historically, families with the means and resources usually moved out of Albany by the time their child reached middle school (this is where the sharpest decline usually happens in Albany). Hence, the ugly statistics concerning pass rates and graduation rates were specific to the African American and Latino males of Albany. Schools that successfully serve African-American and Latino scholars like Excellence of Bedford Stuyvesant and Urban Prep should never minimize their role in balancing their families’ access to a high-quality education. Furthermore, we must continue to capture the methods, approaches and preparation necessary for schools to systematically develop great teachers.

Great teachers should be the resource for our educational reforms. Here’s an idea for our legislators: Let’s identify twenty-five of the most effective teachers and administrators serving our minority males. Then study their habits of preparation, planning, instructional delivery and accountability for several years--being careful to capture their self-questioning and execution of lessons. Finally, give the great teachers an opportunity to lead this new initiative in regions around the country. We’ll call it, “The Great Teacher Project: Building Effective Classrooms One Teacher at a Time.” Giving our minority males an opportunity for success requires us to invest in building great teachers.

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The opinions expressed in Why Boys Fail 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.