Student Well-Being Commentary

How I Learned to Teach

By Eva Ostrum — February 10, 2009 5 min read

My colleague smiled wryly when I stopped by her room after school. “I was wondering how long it would take you to come see me,” she said. All semester, I had noticed that one of my students flew out of my classroom each day to make it to her next class on time.

“Who teaches the class you have after mine?” I asked the girl one day.

“Ms. Ingram,” she yelled back as she raced out the door. “You can’t be late for Ms. Ingram—she doesn’t play!” In an instant, the girl had disappeared and I was left scratching my head, wondering how I could get students to rush to my class with the same alacrity.

Thus began my own, self-devised teacher education program. I had entered my fourth year of teaching and wanted to improve my craft. If Danette Ingram had things she could teach me, others in the building must too. I started asking students about the “hard” teachers, the ones for whom they never came late, unprepared, or without homework. I also talked with my colleagues about who they thought did an exemplary job in the classroom. A number of names surfaced, and I started making the rounds on my prep periods, sitting like a student all over again, soaking up whatever these veteran teachers had to offer me.

For help with classroom management, I went to Danette Ingram and Barry Lawton; for differentiated instruction, Cindy Bergeron. To learn how to explain difficult concepts clearly, I visited Bill Bauer. And to observe an absolute maestro in action, someone students respected deeply and from whom, they said, they truly learned, I watched Brenda Scally.

None of these teachers had participated in Teach For America, taught at a charter school, or entered the classroom through the New Teacher Project. Both they and I predated all these innovations in urban education. By the same token, none of them qualified for those $20,000 signing bonuses handed out in Massachusetts during the late 1990s. All fell into the easily overlooked “veteran teacher” category: They showed up for work, day in and day out, with no special incentives, rewards, or recognition. They drew no attention to themselves. Yet the minute you entered their rooms, you saw how much they had to offer.

These veteran educators became an integral part of my development as a teacher. Some argue that great teachers have innate qualities they cannot learn from others, and that (extending such reasoning) urban education would work if we could just get “the best and the brightest” into the classroom. My experience suggests otherwise: All the motivation, commitment, and raw talent in the world would not have amounted to much without the invaluable on-the-job training I received at that critical point in my teaching career. This reality takes on increased relevance as the national discussion about investing in human capital intensifies.

To date, that discussion has focused primarily on attracting new candidates to teaching and administrative roles, largely through innovations such as charter schools and groups such as New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project, and Teach For America. These initiatives have invigorated urban education. They have introduced new blood into the system and enabled teachers to examine in a disciplined and purposeful way their own practices. Today’s emphasis on data-driven instruction and decisionmaking and on distributed leadership illustrates some of this new thinking and represents important contributions to urban education.

Transferring such best practices from the pioneering segment of our field to the actual high schools that educate most urban students could play a pivotal role in institutionalizing the reforms that matter most. But doing so effectively will require investing in the professional development of the teachers who spend their careers in these schools.

The facts suggest that we have no choice. More than 90 percent of urban secondary students attend traditional comprehensive high schools. Wholesale restructuring would not present an adequate solution, even if we had the resources to do it. As the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has documented, in a 2006 self-funded evaluation of its high school initiative, new, small high schools face serious issues related to staff recruitment and retention. Stressful working conditions, such as long hours, have led many teachers to conclude, according to the evaluation, “that the job takes too much out of them to be feasible over the long term.” A recent working paper for the American Enterprise Institute illustrates the scarcity of the labor pool that “best and brightest” human-capital advocates desire. Improving urban schools—especially urban high schools, where the new reformers have penetrated less than they have at the K-8 level—depends in large part on the professionals who already inhabit them.

Thankfully, evidence suggests that high-caliber professional development for teachers raises student achievement. An evaluation by the Community Training and Assistance Center of work done in Duval County, Fla., demonstrated that purposeful teacher training can lead to quantifiable gains in student learning. Brownsville, Texas, the winner of the 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education, cites strong teacher professional development as a key element in its improvement. As Superintendent Hector Gonzalez said: “Academic excellence is not an accident. It’s a very deliberate approach.” Other examples exist, all of which should be examined for the lessons they impart for the human-capital discussion currently under way.

Years ago, in what the New York City school system then called District 2, Anthony J. Alvarado used professional development as a platform from which to improve student achievement. We have progressed significantly since Alvarado’s tenure in New York. Lizabeth N. Gewirtzman, a faculty member at Baruch College and a former District 2 colleague of Alvarado’s, argues that newly developed tools can work in tandem with highly targeted “best practice” staff development to enhance and accelerate results.

To some degree, this is what urban teacher-residency programs have done successfully: marry the skills of veteran teachers with what we have learned from some of the recent reforms. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we must recognize that high-quality professional development exists, and that veteran teachers, if given some agency in it, can grow and develop the same way professionals who receive on-the-job training in any other field do.

Expanding the human-capital discussion to include this perspective could provide us with the springboard we need to bring meaningful reforms to scale.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as How I Learned to Teach


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