Teacher leadership at the Ford Foundation

​Thanks to the Teacher Leaders Network, last week I had the wonderfully unusual opportunity to sit around a table at a meeting at Ford Foundation with the purpose of discussing and making sense of the issue of teacher retention in urban “hard-to-staff” schools. I was elbow-to-elbow with a diverse group of professors from various universities across the country, people from the Ford Foundation and Annenberg Institute, education economists and policy makers. I was the only practicing classroom teacher present at the meeting.

I was a little nervous going in. How would my comparatively limited experience be valuable to these important players in the field of education? I had to check myself on that insecurity, though, because the answer is that the experiences of practicing teachers are not limited, once we dig into them a little bit; realistically speaking, we educators ARE major players in the field of education. Take us out of the equation and everyone else is just talking! (Okay, I’m exaggerating a little and don’t mean to devalue the work of the non-teacher leaders in education…thanks for letting me get on a high-horse for a moment, though; I needed that!)

As it turned out, the participants at the meeting were very much interested in and respectful of what I had to say. I found that they also had a lot of thoughtful points about the nature of teaching and learning and how education policy could better support it. My favorite moment had to be when, Lisa Delpit (whom I admire and whose work I count as an important influence) said in the middle of a discussion of what might be leverage points for retaining quality teachers, “Ariel, how many years have you been teaching?”

“Five,” I responded.

“I see,” she said. “So, we should all really be interviewing Ariel.”

I felt very validated! (and yes, I am shamelessly bragging ☺ )

Being a teacher leader means sharing and representing relevant and key ideas of our work as teachers in contexts beyond our individual classrooms so as to improve the education of our students and our ability to provide it for them. Here is what I was able to share about this at the meeting:

–Teachers should choose to teach in hard-to staff schools, not only because of a desire to promote social justice, but also because of a desire to become truly quality, top-notch teachers.

–A quality teacher is a one who is continually developing a pedagogy that responds to the specific context and needs of the students he or she serves with the purpose of preparing them to meet the demands of the larger changing world.

–In hard-to-staff schools, the learning environment is constantly threatened, because of insufficient resources and instability, both within the school and within the home lives and communities of many of the students. At the school level, unprepared teachers and high turnover rates (often in the form of ongoing teacher vacancies) threaten the viability of the learning environment.

–For those of us working under such conditions, it is easy to slip into “survival mode,” where our main goal is to make it through the day. The same is true for our students.

–Teachers in hard-to-staff schools need help shifting our focus from survival to quality teaching. We need support and motivation to invest in our own practices rather than simply responding in the moment to all the challenges that come to our way until we are too tired to think of anything else.

–In the first few years, research shows—and I’d agree—that teachers who stay in hard-to-staff schools are teachers who feel effective in their classrooms. (Later there are other factors that come in to play.) In order to feel effective, one has to constantly combat the notion that what we do as teachers in our classrooms doesn’t really matter. Research–and by now, for me, experience—shows that it matters very much what teachers do.

–We need significant opportunities throughout our work days and weeks to get serious about what we are doing, down to the little details, share with others, and investigate and reflect on the results of our work. We are continually experimenting, and we need supports that make this a rich, rewarding, even enjoyable experience.

–Though at the Ford meeting, we mostly agreed our country’s education system probably needs a complete overhaul, one participant suggested we consider which “thread” or two of the knot we could “pull on” and hope to see some significant movement toward developing and retaining quality teachers in hard-to staff schools. He suggested increasing adult face-to-face time. This sat well with me, given my experiences in a teacher residency program through Bank Street College, and now in a collaborative team-structured school, as well as in the Teacher Leaders Network forums. Though many salient points and possible moves came up, it seemed as though our conversation kept circling back to the idea of providing time for teachers to work together, and share and build on one another’s strengths.

–Another participant, who works as a district superintendent lamented, half-joking, “You can’t penalize a teacher for not bringing joy into the classroom!” But you can create a collaborative, intellectually stimulating school environment where the joy of teaching and learning spreads naturally.

[image found at www.mdp.state.md.us/ images/front.jpg]