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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