Teaching Profession Opinion

For States Creating Teacher Policies, a Suggestion: Talk to Teachers

By Jeff Austin — December 17, 2014 3 min read
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This is the second of a five-part conversation on equitable teacher distribution.

Jeff Austin

In 2009, my principal was named California Teacher of the Year (ToY) and, as part of his ToY responsibilities, he traveled to Japan to observe their schools. He shared many takeaways from that trip that I still think about, but two stick out.

First, in the Japanese schools he visited, the students stay in the same classroom throughout the day while teachers move around from room to room. Second, teachers only taught for half the day, using the other half for collaboration and assessment.

I’m not sure how many teachers would buy into the whole “go to the students” idea, but having more time to plan, grade, assess, and collaborate sounds like an idea we could all get behind—an idea that could really support teachers who are working in very challenging schools.

These same takeaways come to mind when I think of the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s request that states create plans to bring the highest quality teachers to the highest need schools and more importantly, keep them there. I’m not about to say that Japan has those answers, but there might be some ideas worth exploring for challenging schools.

At my school, the Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA), an LAUSD pilot school, the English teachers have begun using a “Japanese model” where they teach one day, then collaborate, assess, work one-on-one with students, and complete other tasks the next day.

At SJHA, the teachers drive policy with the support of a collaborative principal—everyone sharing the same vision and mission. A teacher-powered model allows the people working closest with students to make the decisions.

SJHA educators choose to follow an Elect-to-Work agreement that requires us to put in extra hours, take on extra responsibility, and accept greater accountability than the regular district contract. The trick is, we wrote that Elect-to-Work agreement. The teachers know what the students need and we choose the system that best meets those needs. Our principal simply holds us accountable to our own words.

My school is 87 percent free/reduced lunch, attended mostly by students who are English as a second language, and our campus is camped right on the border between two local gangs. Yet, our school attracts some of the most gifted, talented, motivated, intelligent, and passionate teachers that you will find in Los Angeles or, possibly even the state. Our staff collaborates to produce student-centered results, including the highest staff attendance rate in LAUSD for two years running. Not to mention, our grad rate is 91 percent, 80 percent of our senior class is eligible for admission to the University of California and California State University systems, and our students have one of the highest attendance rates in LAUSD. All shared accomplishments of a collaborative staff and school community.

If state planning goes as expected, states will come up with big plans, pass them on to the districts, then to the schools, and eventually, to the teachers. Teachers that state-level leaders haven’t met, teaching students they do not know. Maybe it’s time to change how we come up with answers to tough policy questions. Maybe instead, states should collaborate directly with the people who work closest with students—teachers, and simply ask them what they need to join or stay in challenging schools. Give these teachers greater autonomy to pursue practices custom-fit to their students’ needs—not to a cookie-cutter plan baked up to account for all the diverse need of students across California.

In the end, maybe states will empower teachers to engage education practices like those in Japan. Or maybe their big idea can be found in a small school in San Fernando.

Jeff Austin teaches Economics and Government and serves as the Coordinator of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles. He is a National Board-certified teacher and 2012-13 Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year, as well as a member of Educators 4 Excellence.

The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable 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.