Teacher-powered schools open the doors to adaptive solutions

Teacher-Powered Schools Round Table: TPSI Ambassador Jeff Austin shares ways in which teacher-powered schools are adaptive.

Man, it has been a rough couple of weeks! It has been dumping rain here in Southern California, Liverpool (my favorite English football club) had a 5-game winless streak ending our title hopes, gophers have overrun my yard, and then there’s that whole President thing. Yes, like many educators, I have definitely taken my opportunities to “throw some shade” in the direction of our new President and his choice for the Secretary of Education. However, I want to say something that you might find surprising – I think the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education will provide some great opportunities for teachers. Hold on. Stay with me.

Every new school year teachers all over the country meet a whole new group of learners, some less willing than others, some much less willing. Many long months later we look back on our wins and losses. I don’t know about you, but my greatest wins have always been the students who I won over, who had that “ah ha” moment in my class, found success for the first time after a long struggle, and became the student we always knew they were. Teachers are known for their love the challenge of winning over a captive and sometimes very resistant audience and turning them into a second family. Now we get the chance to do the same on a much bigger stage.

Teachers have always been able to do this because, when faced with challenges in our classrooms, we think adaptively – looking for solutions that require outside-the-box thinking instead of the more technical solutions our state and national policymakers typically offer us. Teachers are able to make these choices more effectively because of our close connection to our students and their needs. We give that kid with too much energy a ball to sit on instead of a chair.  We create cooperative and tolerant classrooms instead of adding lots of rules. And now with the growth of Teacher Powered Schools, we can bring this adaptive thinking to bear on the decision-making process of entire school.

Rather than “top-down” initiatives, teachers at my school, the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles, have been the primary drivers behind our innovations.

Our science and math teachers started a STEM peer mentor program to increase support for students in the classes where our students have traditionally struggled. When confronted with the challenge of not having enough classrooms for each teacher (not a bad problem to have), teachers began sharing rooms and using extra non-teaching periods to provide more targeted support to students. Our 12th-grade Instructional Team took the idea of a period-long advisory final and turned it into a day-long conference where students met in small groups to share stories about how they demonstrated their mastery of our school’s Habits of Mind. Students who excel in Integrated Math 1 get extra instruction so they can skip Integrated 2 and get to higher level math before finishing high school – giving them greater chances for university admission. In each of these cases, the teachers, connected closely to their students, used nimble and adaptive solutions to the problems facing their students.

So here we are, once again being faced with the challenge of American education system being led by non-educators. We’ve called and emailed our legislators, we’ve tweeted, we’ve commiserated, and most importantly, we’ve mobilized. Now we’ve got that opportunity that we hope for every school year – to win over that skeptical audience. If we want to overcome this challenge and win over the cynics, then we need to move forward using more adaptive thinking on the front lines. We need to bring fewer complaints to the table and more solutions. We need to celebrate every win and then look for the next space for growth. We’ve got to capitalize on our moral authority as teachers and win so much that we get tired of winning. (Yeah, I went there.) This is our resistance.

Let’s re-frame some of the disappointing choices and make them opportunities. Teachers building, running and growing schools that are student-centered are in a unique position to provide winning solutions and that is what gives me optimism that it will get better. As I write the first draft of this article the sun has come out (for now), I trapped another gopher, and Liverpool ended that winless streak with a 2-0 victory over second-place Tottenham. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Jeff Austin teaches economics and government, serves as the coordinator and was on the design team at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and was a 2013 Los Angeles County and Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher of the Year. Jeff is a 2015 Teacher-Powered Schools Ambassador for the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative.

Contact Jeff Austin at jeff@teacherpowered.org
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @MisterA


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  • benowens

    A call for action!

    I think Mr. Austin’s eloquent description of his disappointment with our new Secretary of Education captures the sentiments of many educators. Yet if we dismiss the unflattering view many in the general public – including many policymakers – have of public education in this country, then we fail to recognize one of the root causes for this choice. We also potentially fall into the same trap of sound-bite responses to an issue that deserves much, much more.

    My take on Austin’s post is a call to ask myself (and my peers) some hard questions. Because if we, as teachers, don’t do the hard work to help change this perception, then we will continue to leave these difficult questions to be answered by people who do not have the facts needed to make sound and effective decisions. This is why I am thrilled to be associated with the Teacher-Powered Schools movement. Because as this article points out, it is one clear example of something that works – something that can catalyze the solutions needed to transform the teaching profession to better affect positive outcomes for students.  

    When I and my fellow teachers can, with absolute confidence and moral authority of what works in the classroom, bring solutions to our schools and to the policy table, then we not only improve how we prepare our students for the challenges they will face in the 21st century, but we will have also begun changing the flawed perception that our schools are failing. That is indeed how we turn a disappointing choice into a great opportunity for positive change. 

  • JustinMinkel

    How to accelerate the learning curve for powerful, wrong people?

    I saw Arne Duncan beginning to get it. I saw him embracing teacher leadership and articulating the problems with over-testing. Unfortunately, that came seven years into a position he held for seven and a half years. 

    Betsy DeVos has a steeper learning curve ahead of her than even Arne Duncan had. Like most teachers, I was astonished that one of her first visible acts as Secretary of Education was to criticize teachers she had observed as a guest in their school, like accepting an invitation to dinner and then Tweeting about how overcooked the hosts’ chicken was.

    How do we attempt to teach this difficult student? How do we try to help her learn to listen to teachers, principals, parents, and students, and do more good than damage in her position?

    Here are two guiding principles; I’d love to hear more from any of you, in the vein of the adaptive thinking Jeff describes or the tough questions Ben mentioned.

    1. Focus on partnerships rather than single issues.

    Teachers and policymakers have too many one-time dates; we need more marriages. We have to build networks between groups of teachers and groups of policymakers. There are times we need to address specific problems like over-testing, but the real work tends to happen when we can forge partnerships between networks like Teacher-Powered Schools and policymaking bodies like state departments of ed.

    2. Try to forge common ground, but know when to resist.

    During World War II, there was a saying about collaborators that sometimes haunts me in the teacher leadership arena: “First you pretend to do what they want. Then you do what you want. Then you’re them.” 

    Teacher leaders are often offered those too-few seats at the table. In the words of Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, in an interview this week, “What’s the point of having a seat at the table if you act like everyone who was already seated at the table?”

    The Trump administration is not a normal presidential administration. Betsy DeVos is not a normal Secretary of Education. We need to try to educate her, as Jeff points out, but we need to make sure we’re not co-opted in those efforts. There are times when, to quote Hugh Grant as Prime Minister in Love Actually, we have to realize that “Bullies only respond to strength.”

    We may be fighting battles more personal and identity-based over the next seven years than those we have fought before. Rather than pushing for assessments that measure individual student growth, we may be resisting demands that school districts report undocumented children and families to immigration authorities. Rather than calling for a reduction in the days spent testing, we may be fighting for the dignity of transgender students.

    I share the hope I heard in Jeff’s substantive piece and Ben’s comments. But it’s a grim and resolute hope. The greatest reassurance I feel lies in the number of kindred spirits in this network and others who teach and teach and teach–not only their students, but policymakers and the public, too.

    In the words of Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

  • akrafel

    Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

    Courage is being afraid and doing what needs to be done anyway. Jeff your piece gives me courage. It never occured to me to see Betsy DeVos as anything other than a destroyer.  It never occured to me to try to educate her either.  She Tweeted, “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”  She is right. Let’s send her a copy of Trusting Teachers. Let’s invite her to a teacher-powered school and see what teachers can do. Let’s go down there and talk to her. The teachers at the school she visited were trying to show her what they could do and she could not see it.  Most likely she had no idea what she was seeing. She had no experience with which to compare it.  As teacher-powered schools we are in a position to show her that she was more right than she knows in her second tweet.  We can show her that not only do teachers not need to be given government dictates, that they do not need corporate ones either. Teacher-Powered Schools are incredibly entrepreneururial. Is that not what she honors and believes in?  The American ingenuity? Maybe not, but we can try. Thank you for the inspiration Jeff. You know creative resistance more than most. Thank you for this timely piece.  Washington DC anyone?  Clear Eyes and Full Hearts of teachers assume the student is educable. Maybe Betsy is too.

  • Rob Kriete


    As much as I disapprove of Betsy Devos, I recognize the challenge wrapped in an opportunity that was created for public educators.  Her appointment has surely helped highlight a funding issue within public schools and has quite possibly mobilized both teachers AND parents.  We as educators must capitialize on this and partner with parent groups to leverage lawmakers.  Politicians value parent input tremendously.  If we, as parent and teachers, can help shape a shared message for all lawmakers the “DeVos Effect” could mobilize, not threaten educators, and be a true catalyst for reform from testing to funding to services for students.  


  • Elizabeth Ferhati

    Teacher Adaptability

    Hi Lori,

    I appreciate your positivity and encouragement for teacher leaders! I just love your quote, “We need to bring fewer complaints to the table and more solutions.” In fact, it reminds me of a blog I wrote myself just a couple weeks ago.

    I am currently working towards a Masters degree in teacher leadership and one of the topics we have just learned about is different leadership models. Your comment about teachers’ adaptability reminds me of the Hersey & Blanchard’s Situational Model of Leadership which states that in order to be an effective leader, the leader must consider the task at hand, the ability (experience) level of the participants, and the willingness of the participants.

    I believe that teachers not only have to be adaptable with their students but they must also be adaptable with their colleagues. If we can do this, then hopefully, as you said, we can face some struggles that we are currently experiencing head-on and turn them into some opportunities!

    Thanks for your post and keep staying positive!

    – Liz

  • wilsonk888

    Teacher Change

    I completely agree with your thought on fewer complaints and more solutions.  We need to begin making those complaints opportunities for change in our schools.  If we just complain then there will never be changes made and our schools can never improve.  We need to have teacher leaders who are willing and able to step up to take the initiative on coming up with solutions for improvement.  We as educators are all capable of thinking outside of the box for solutions since we do this on a daily basis, but why is it that most of the time we find it easier to complain?  If we came up with solutions we'd have less to complain about.  I do understand that we have those days where complaining happens, but then we need to think about what could be changed so that schools can improve.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts!