Students want great teachers

Over the past month, my students at Skyline High School in Oakland have been working on four school-reform proposals.  This project is the child of summer work that my colleagues and I did with the Buck Institute for Project Based Learning and my recent trip to Finland.

While I was halfway across the world, talking with Finnish educators, my students were studying the Finnish education system and comparing that world-leading education to their own.  After identifying numerous places where our school could improve, each of my two Introduction to Education classes chose two topics to dive deep into.  Introduction to Education is a tenth grade class for students who think they might want to enter the education field as a career.  These students then take Educational Psychology in thier junor year, and cap thier experience with Peer Education as seniors. In the next four posts, I’ll briefly describe each of the four proposals my students created. 

Student Proposal: Better Trained Teachers

This first proposal is from my second period class.  They’ve noticed that many of their teachers seem poorly trained.  According to the students, some of their teachers are poorly organized and those classes seem to drift from topic to topic, leaving the students wondering, “What am I learning?’  and “Why am I here?” 

They say that, other classes seem to be led by teachers with poor management skills and nonexistent discipline strategies.  In these classes, many students tell me that they are disengaged from their work, choosing instead to talk with their friends about the myriad of issues and dramas that seem so much more important than math or history.  They note that in these classes, often the teacher will lose his or her temper and arguments between the teacher and a group of students ensues.  In still other classes, my students have reported that their teacher has acted inappropriately during conflicts, name-calling or even using profanity with their students.

All of these situations lead to less learning.  Students who are struggling with their behavior have an easy out; claiming that the teacher “doesn’t like” them or “isn’t teaching” them and that is the reason for their poor grades.  Students who are trying to do the right thing get frightened at the conflicts and mentally, “they just shut down.”

My students’ answer to this is that our school needs higher quality teachers.  They note that when they think about better teachers, they are thinking about two very different sets of skills.  On the one hand, they are talking about content area knowledge.  They want teachers who are excellent at math, writing, or science.  On the other hand, they also talk about the pedagogical skills of teaching such as classroom management, lesson planning, and learning facilitation.

To get better teachers for our school, my students came up with a two-pronged plan.  They want the school to hire more highly qualified and better prepared teachers and they want the school to work smarter about how they train the teachers that are already here.

I agree with my students when they note that at our school, the hiring process is too shallow.  After clearing the paperwork hurdle, a potential new hire will interview with the principal.  Sometimes, another teacher in the department with the opening will be at the interview.  Other times, only the principal will screen the candidate.  After the interview, the principal, alone, decides which candidate will fill the vacancy. 

Moving forward, my students would like to be involved in the hiring process.  They think that the school should identify vacancies earlier, so that potential candidates can come to the school before the summer break and teach a class.  When the candidate is teaching, one or two other teachers, along with the principal would observe.  Then, after the session, the students will be interviewed about how the lesson went.  Those candidates who pass the sample-lesson stage, would then go on to be interviewed by a team that included a teacher, a student, and a parent.  Finally, the whole team would decide which candidate got the job. 

After hearing about their ideas for new hires, I asked my students, “But what to do with those teachers who are already here?  We can’t simply identify the ones who are least effective and make them go away.”

After some thought, my students replied that they would want to form a committee of teachers and students who would control the professional development dollars at our school.  Training needs for our teachers would come from the teachers themselves, and from the administration team, when they conduct each teacher’s annual observations.  The professional development team would talk about the identified needs of our teachers. 

If it seemed that most of our teachers needed similar training, such as improving their classroom management, then our professional development dollars might be spent on whole-staff training in that area.  Alternately, if the staff had a multitude of needs, then our professional development money might be spent on a series of smaller workshops designed to meet those needs.

Listening to my students’ proposal, I think back to what Linda Darling-Hammond said at an ASCD conference in San Francisco, “We can not fire our way to Finland.”  By this, she meant that simply identifying our poorest teachers, through any means, and getting rid of them will not solve the problem of under-prepared teachers in our schools.  Instead, we have to find a long-term solution to acquiring and keeping the very best teachers we can find and couple that strategy with one that more accurately identifies teachers’ needs and supports their improvement. 

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