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School & District Management Commentary

School Leaders: Don’t Let Your Teachers Lose Heart

By Laurie Barnoski — April 02, 2013 5 min read

I lined up to board a plane in Seattle when a security agent reached for my husband’s ticket and read it. She said, “Barnoski?” Then she swiveled her head, finding me as her eyes filled with tears. “Mrs. Barnoski, I was one of your students in high school!” I recognized Andrea right away; it was her smile. She reached out to hug me as I kissed her on the cheek.

As I walked down the ramp to the plane, someone tapped me on the shoulder. A man asked, “You’re a teacher, aren’t you? So am I. History. Seeing former students is a great part of the job, isn’t it?” I agreed. It is all about connections. Andrea and I made a connection when she was 16, and we formed a relationship.

Teachers have the same two goals: connecting with their students and helping them learn as much as they can about a subject area. In my case, as a high school English teacher (now retired), my focus was to teach my students how to read, write, and speak effectively. My colleagues and I sometimes differed on our methods, but we were committed to helping our students succeed in school and in life.

These two goals alone are difficult to achieve. Most high school teachers teach five classes a day with an average of 30 students per class. Picture trying to connect with 150 teenagers with their unique backgrounds, personalities, intellects, motivations, skills, learning styles, and needs. Regardless, an effective teacher is hypervigilant, always on the lookout for how a student is doing intellectually and emotionally. She leans down to ask a student about his day; says something nice by the door while he is leaving; requests a meeting to get to the bottom of a student’s problem. A teacher grabs any moments she can find to connect.

Making a connection helps teachers achieve their second goal: teaching subject matter effectively. Teachers are excited and knowledgeable about their subject area. They relish figuring out ways to engage students, but it is not always easy to keep their attention. They must hook students who may not be interested in our subject and then hold them accountable for learning the material. This takes time, energy, imagination, and patience.

As an English teacher, I may have asked my students to picture Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and to compare him to someone in their own lives they admire and respect. A hand would shoot up. A student would talk excitedly about his neighbor who invited him into his workshop to learn how to use tools; they built a shed together. These moments when students “get” the lesson are what teachers live for, but they don’t happen all the time.

Is every directive worth the reduction of teacher-student classroom time?”

Teachers in 2013 are getting discouraged. Their two goals are difficult enough without trying to incorporate all the newest programs and strategies in education.

I recently emailed a former colleague, a highly respected math teacher, to ask her to list the programs she was supposed to consider implementing in her classroom. Here goes: standards-based grading and instruction; common-core standards; common grading; end-of-course assessment, or EOC; conversation, help, activity, movement, participation, and success, or CHAMPS; creating independence through student-owned strategies, or CRISS; love and logic; pyramid to intervention; response to intervention; learning targets; data walks; teacher-principal evaluation project, or TPEP; school improvement plans, or SIP; academic collaboration time, or ACT; positive behavioral intervention and supports, or PBIS; and a new whisper in the halls, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and PARCC.

Can you see why teachers feel overwhelmed with all of the “shoulds” hanging over their heads? Teachers cannot connect with each student, teach subject matter effectively, and incorporate all of the proposed programs that their administrators are pushing. Granted, some of the programs can help teachers be more effective, but the quantity of programs, the speed with which they change without being assessed, and the time and paperwork they require for teachers to develop, learn, and implement are not feasible or realistic. Teachers get discouraged when there is not a chance that they can achieve what they are being asked to do.

What follows are six suggestions for administrators to help them encourage teachers:

Survey teachers. In the spring, as you consider programs for the following year (or years), send out a survey to teachers asking them to rate the areas where they need help. Pick your programs accordingly. You won’t please everyone, but this is a chance to address your teachers’ real concerns.

Consider the trade-offs carefully. Teachers often exclaim, “All I want to do is teach!” Training teachers about new programs during the school year costs teachers their time and districts their money. Is every directive worth the reduction of teacher-student classroom time?

Provide opportunities for master teachers. In a school, there are beginning teachers, struggling teachers, competent teachers, and master teachers. Each group needs to have the opportunity to learn and improve its teaching skills. Like the classroom where an effective teacher has enrichment activities for his top students, there must be challenging opportunities for your strongest teachers. The model of all teachers assembling in a room to learn the same material at the same rate is not the best use of anyone’s time.

Remember to assess. Spend more time assessing existing programs before implementing new ones. Discover which programs have made significant impacts on students and which ones haven’t. Sometimes programs require more than one school year to evaluate.

Take something off the table. Teachers are being asked to do more without letting go of something else. Surprise your teachers before school next year and strike a program that was assessed to be ineffective. Your teachers will love you for easing their load.

Return to the classroom. Put yourself back in the classroom and imagine teaching high school students. Make a list of the pluses and minuses of being a high school teacher in your school district. Then think about what you are asking your teachers to do. Is it fair? Could you do it if you were in the classroom? Would you want to? Would you like to be a member of your faculty or district? Why or why not?

People become high school teachers because they have a passion for young people and a passion for their subject matter. They are willing to try to incorporate a reasonable number of new strategies and programs that will enhance student learning. Think carefully about what and how much you are asking your teachers to do. As administrators, you must encourage your teachers to not lose heart.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2013 edition of Education Week as School Leaders: Make Sure Your Teachers Don’t Lose Heart

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