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More Takeaways From The EWA Seminar On Teaching

Last week, I shared story ideas for journalists generated at the Education Writers Association seminar on “The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession” that I attended. Today, I’m sharing three lessons-learned that are still with me two weeks later.

For full narrative accounts or summaries of the seminar, see those offered by Stacey Snyder, Ken Bernstein, Mark Anderson, Mark Roberts, and Dan Brown. (Ken’s take on things most matches my own.)

Here’s what I took away from the day-long seminar:

  • There is no reason ever to have a panel on teaching without teachers on the panel. It’s simply inexcusable. The clearest moment where there was a need for teachers came during the third panel on professional development, when the panelists were asked about the value of National Board Certification. All three panelists said they didn’t know much, but offered the limited anecdotal evidence they knew, and this is where the question died. Yet there were multiple National Board Certified Teachers, myself included, in the room. Why not ask the teachers?
  • Luckily, whenever the journalists had the chance to talk to teachers, be it in the hallways, over lunch, or at the formal roundtables that ended the event, I found I was asked good, tough questions and I was genuinely listened to. I was extremely impressed with nearly every interaction I had with members of the press in the room, even those with whom I’m certain I disagree on every educational issue. It is very easy to critique the “media” in the abstract, just as it’s easy to critique “teachers”. However, nearly every individual member of the media I talked to struck me as intelligent, thoughtful, and filled with a desire to do their job well. The only exception was a journalism student, a former Teach for America teacher who shockingly has left the classroom, who clearly had an agenda to root out and expose “bad” teachers. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad and lazy journalists out there, there are good journalists who sometimes write bad pieces, and there are those who, for whatever reason, don’t challenge established narratives, but my assumption is that, much like teaching, these are a very small number of professionals who get a disproportionate amount of attention and vitriol.
  • We don’t know what makes someone a good teacher before they’re in the classroom. This was the consensus shared by Vicki Bernstein, the city Department of Education’s executive director of teacher recruitment and euality, and Spencer Kympton, vice-president of recruiting for Teach For America. I must admit, I was prepared to despise both these people. Both, however, were magnanimous in their willingness to talk more about what they don’t know than what they do know. This flew completely in the face of Talia Milgrom-Elcott, a program officer the Carnegie Corporation and previously a special assistant to Joel Klein, who began the day advocating for getting more people from the top third of college classes into the teaching profession. The bottom line is there is evidence that this will not improve student performance, as the much referenced McKinsey Report fully acknowledges. If people from the DOE and TFA publicly agree on this point, it’s time for McKinsey and the Carnegie Corporation to move on to finding better solutions.

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