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Ariel Sacks: Expanding Teacher Leadership

New York City is at a critical juncture in the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the way these will ultimately impact student learning.   Common Core standards, though not without some serious flaws, seem to point toward a path that will help students build skills like persistence and problem solving that are essential to their academic and career readiness.  However, no standards, written on paper, blasted into cyberspace or projected onto the sky will determine the quality of education students receive in their classrooms.  There are no shortcuts to the kind of great teaching we all want for our children. Thoughtful interpretation of the standards—along with some serious debate and a few revisions—are just the beginning of the work that must be done to move in the direction of truly great, New York City public schools for all children. 

What will help us along the path toward college and career readiness for all students is consistently high quality teaching, supported by favorable conditions for teaching and learning for both students and teachers. Several things will have to change in order to clear the way for the development (and retention) of excellent teachers in excellent schools throughout the city.

1. Make room for teachers to think critically and develop their pedagogy.  Currently, teachers are overwhelmed by the demands of a brand-new teacher evaluation system, based in part on the results of brand-new standardized assessments, increased expectations for the collection and analysis of data to drive instructional decisions, all while charged with learning the newly adopted standards and making decisions about how best to help students meet them.  At best, the effect is dizzying, causing fatigue and distracting teachers from aspects of teaching that directly impact student learning.  At worst, teachers are afraid to take the risks necessary to learn to teach in ways that will instill critical thinking and the drive to learn in their students. 

Great teachers who develop their students’ critical thinking skills are themselves critical thinkers. They seek out the professional development they need and are passionate about through reading, collaborating with colleagues, and participating in virtual professional networks.  They design their own assessments and collect the data that most effectively captures their students’ learning.  Quite ironically, great teachers do not become that way by doing what they are told by higher-ups. They develop expertise so by sticking to their principles, taking risks when necessary, and finding their unique voices as classroom educators.

Let teachers lead, especially in our classrooms. Back up from policies that are top down and punitive, which repel creative independently thinking teachers and scare others into compliance.  Build an education system that celebrates and develops courageous, transformative teachers, who are well versed in current practices in their field and adapt methods to meet the needs of their students.  These are the teachers who can address achievement gaps and prepare students for long-term success. 

2.  Expand teacher leadership from the classroom and solve problems before they happen through hybrid teacher leader roles for accomplished teachers. Hybrid roles for expert teachers can solve a variety of problems.  First, our schools can retain more of their best teachers if career opportunities are available to them that don’t involve leaving the classroom.  We can also retain accomplished teachers by valuing their knowledge and putting them to use beyond their classrooms through hybrid roles at the school, district, and citywide level.     

Finally, hybrid roles can begin to bridge the gap we’ve long seen between education policy and practice. The status quo exists on multiple levels and must evolve on multiple levels.  While the Common Core movement may seek to change the status quo by emphasizing deeper learning for all students, the same movement upholds another troubling status quo by keeping teachers in the position of being passive recipients of a top down policy.  If the Common Core Standards are going to have anywhere near the effect they are intended to have, this power dynamic must change.  

District offices should have resident teacher leaders on their teams, who teach part time and also work with administrators to influence policy decisions.   With their current teaching expertise and ground-level perspectives, these teacher leaders could see many problems before they happen and offer solutions to prevent them.   Hybrid roles could also be designed for expert teachers to spread their expertise in curriculum, instruction, or teacher leadership to other schools in New York City without having to leave the classroom entirely. (See the recent book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead Without Leaving for examples of how this might work.)  I know first hand, it’s pretty much impossible to be a curriculum consultant for instructional coach in schools while teaching fulltime in one’s own classroom.  But the spread of teaching expertise is exactly what’s needed to help develop the quality of teaching we need in every classroom.  The new administration should take steps to facilitate these connections by breaking down barriers for accomplished teachers to maximize their impact.    

3. Improve learning conditions for students.  Great teachers alone can’t meet all of the needs of students, and we need to look carefully at what we want students to be able to do and what we are actually asking them to do throughout the 7-hour school day (and beyond).  Children are being “worked harder” than ever in reading and math in effort to meet more demanding standards.  However, brain research, child psychology and pediatrics associations all tell us that children need time to move around, socialize, play, and day dream in order to develop healthy strong minds and bodies.  Students’ schedules must include time for the brain to rest and process classroom experiences.  They need time throughout their day to move around and socialize with peers, both essential aspects of their development and preparation for healthy adult lives.  If not planned into their school day, students will steal this time during class through off task conversations or trips to “the bathroom” in defiance of structures that don’t meet their needs.

The arts, including music and drama, as well as trade skills and crafts all have a place in our education system and serve the goal of college and career readiness for all students.  Paper and pencil are not the only tools of adult professionals and therefore should not be the only tools of students.      

Finally, public schools have a duty to educate any students who come through their doors.  Public schools that serve a large number of students from neighborhoods where violence and poverty are especially prevalent have a very different and far more challenging task in front of them than schools that serve only some students from such neighborhoods. I know from first hand experience.

Schools that serve large numbers of children from high poverty areas need extra support to meet the social-emotional needs of students who have been traumatized by the violence and instability in their lives. These students, more than any others, need stable schools, but instead turnover is high, because teachers and principals lack the support they need to effectively meet the needs of their students.  Teachers cannot ignore the realities of their students’ lives, yet they don’t have the training or resources to truly help their students cope with the burden of their experiences.  If the next administration is committed to keeping great teachers in the highest need schools, they must consider how to address the needs of significant numbers of students who have been traumatized, so that these students may be better prepared to focus on their learning, and so that teachers are not solely responsible for shouldering the weight of this most profound disparity in our city.

I’m optimistic that over the next four years, New York City could become a center for innovative teaching that creates great opportunity for all students educationally, professionally and personally.  The talent is already here.  The key is to shift policies and messaging around the implementation of the Common Core Standards to create dramatically different conditions, under which students, teachers, and education leaders can learn together.

Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English in Brooklyn, N.Y. and is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach. A member of the CTQ Collaboratory, she writes the blog On the Shoulders of Giants, and is featured in the new book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave.