deepening the dialogue

Schools That Treat Teachers Like Professionals

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, are corresponding about school policyRead their entire exchange.


Even though I won’t use this post to react to all the ideas you listed in regards to “what makes education in Finland that good,” please keep the lists coming!

If there is a dominant theme that runs through your list, it seems to be that teachers in Finland are truly valued and respected — that the profession on teaching is truly that — professional. I know I don’t need to go into the myriad ways that is not true in America, especially right now.

Moving the American education system, and the larger society in which it exists, to a place where teaching is truly a profession will require more than just changing the system; it will require systemic change.

But as school leaders at autonomous schools we need not wait for larger change. So I am going to throw my own list at you that describes efforts to value teachers at our new network of schools in Denver.

  1. It’s hard to become a SOAR teacher. We have a competitive, extensive, and intensive selection process for new teachers. Entry into our community isn’t easy.
  2. Teachers are held to high expectations. In education we often talk about the importance of high expectations for students. We also must have high expectations for teachers. Our teachers know that great things are expected of them.
  3. Accountability must support the culture of high expectations. And I don’t mean the student growth-data type of accountability that is coming into vogue. It’s about accountability to the work, to each other, to the craft of teaching. Let’s put it this way — at SOAR you need to grow, or you need to go.
  4. Growth can’t be expected without support, so we invest heavily in our teachers’ development. We allocate significant financial resources as well as time and energy to the professional development of our staff. Our teacher education is individualized (no one goes to a workshop that they could give themselves with their eyes closed as happens so often with teacher development). And we bring in experts to work with teachers — not just the teacher in the school down the road that may or may not know just a little more than they do. Nothing is more demoralizing and draining for a teacher than being expected to go to same old training.
  5. Teachers must have professional knowledge and expertise. Teachers at our school are expected to constantly refine their craft.
  6. Teachers have lots of responsibility. While we give teachers a ton of support and direction in planning their instruction, there is very little in the way of packaged or scripted curriculums in our schools. Teachers must think for themselves, put in the time to develop appropriate plans, and then revise them as necessary.
  7. We give our teachers what they need to do their job. Our teachers don’t have to waste their time on things that shouldn’t be their responsibility —  like making sure there are enough instructional supplies, appropriate furniture, and resources for students and parents. That’s the job of school administration, not teachers. For example, every teacher in our school has come to us at some point this year for additional books that they felt were necessary to deliver quality instruction. No request was denied — in fact, teachers are often given the school credit card and sent to the bookstore to get what they need.
  8. Our school leaders are master teachers. Leadership and management expertise are not enough to become a leader in our schools. Even though we now have different responsibilities within the school, we see ourselves first and foremost as teachers. Therefore, it’s natural for us to understand and respect the work of teachers.
  9. Our teachers become leaders within our schools. Next year two of our teachers will be part of our SOAR Leadership Development Program — our in-house approach to developing and training exceptional teachers to be school leaders.

Notably absent from the list above is teacher compensation. I won’t pretend that we pay our teachers anywhere near enough. Our salary schedule is pretty much the same as Denver Public Schools. In the 2011-2012 school year, schools in Colorado will have to function on about $6,500 per student. This is unconscionable, but that’s for another blog post …

Would love to hear what you are doing at your school to further the profession of teaching.

Take care,

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.