I’ve recently heard a lot of talk in my sphere of education about how now is the time for educators to transform teaching and learning. While I agree with the sentiment, I’ve been puzzled and perplexed by what exactly we’re transforming both to and from. Now, more than ever, needs of our students and families are virtually inescapable (no pun intended) but what exactly should we as a collective body of educators and leaders do to reimagine education in our country?
For months, teachers, principals, parents, and district leaders have scrambled to connect students to devices and access to the internet. The thought, of course, is that should remote learning needs arise, it’s imperative that all students, regardless of pre-existing access to technology, do have the access required to learn from home. On this note, I also completely agree: access is an essential step in ensuring equity of experience for all students.
But, to focus solely on technology, e-learning, blended learning, flipped learning, virtual learning, online learning–whatever we want to call it–as the vehicular mode of transformation, well, that I’m afraid simply will not work.
We know something is off about the system, but what exactly is it? We know we need a transformation–but of what? And to what? If it’s not about enhanced learning through the integration of technology, then what, pray tell, is it all about?
The greater issue, the deeper issue, the honest issue in education is the same one that has existed in our country since its inception. It’s a question that first and foremost, we within the educational system must collectively answer, and it’s difficult, complex, and straightforward: How honestly willing are we to create equitable opportunities and experiences for all students?
I have spent the past 14 years in education–as a teacher, administrator, and now currently as a specialist. I have worked with, known, and met the absolute best educators and leaders around my state. My mother-in-law is a retired teacher; my husband is a teacher; my best friends are and were teachers. I love teachers, and I want to dedicate my life to helping them thrive so that our children can do the same.
But we must address the big elephant in the room–the question of equity–and exactly what we’re willing to sacrifice and what we’re willing to commit to do.
If we truly believe that all students deserve an equitable learning environment and learning opportunities, then we have to admit that for far too long, we–the teachers–have put our own needs first.
Now, before you all collectively hurl your masks at my face–let me unpack that idea a bit.
For far, far, too long, teachers in far, far too many schools and districts have been allowed to operate in what we lovingly refer to as “islands.” We have chosen to–and been allowed to–go into our rooms, teach whatever we wanted to teach, however we wanted to teach it, with no real barometer as to whether or not we should be teaching with the strategies/texts/lessons/labs we’d chosen.
For far too long, collaboration has been rare and under-emphasized, under-coached, and under-valued. With the introduction of professional learning communities (PLC) some 20 years ago, many teachers were trained and encouraged to work together with grade-level or content-area peers–to analyze data, determine next steps, and commonly plan lessons. I know many phenomenal schools that implemented PLC processes with fidelity initially–but once the shine of the process wore off, and the administrators found another new initiative to bring to their staff, the effectiveness of the PLC process began to wane.
John Hattie’s Visible Learning, a meta-analysis of what works in regards to student learning, finds that one of the highest influences on learning–year after year–is teacher collective efficacy. What’s that mouthful mean? Teacher collective efficacy is the belief that teachers must share if they want to make an impact. Collective efficacy is when a group of people believe that their working together–to solve the problem–is what will solve the problem. Teacher collective efficacy, in other words, is what happens when teachers believe their work in the PLC process does make an impact on student learning.
If we want to transform education, we have to address inequities that exist within: our country, our states, our regions, our counties, our communities, our districts, our schools, our classrooms. How in the world are we going to create equity on the whole-scale if we cannot even guarantee that two fourth-grade siblings in the school– who have different teachers–both have access to high-quality teachers, curriculum, and instruction?
When teachers are allowed to work on islands, it’s easy to miss inequities. Why? Because everything is set up to be different–nothing (whether great or concerning) stands out.
What else, besides teachers’ shared beliefs that their working together makes an impact, influences learning? Teacher quality and a guaranteed, viable curriculum.
More than leadership. More than technology. More than funding, teacher-student relationships, and being liked at school (though yes, all of these factors matter).
Teacher quality is best improved through the collaborative process of a PLC. I’ve been to my fair share of one-and-done workshops (in fact, in my current role I lead some!) and though for the moment I’ve gained a new idea or learned a new technique–overall, none have completely transformed my abilities in the classroom. What is transformative is the ongoing process of working together with peers–learning from other experts in my field–sharing best practices, vulnerabilities, and failures. When teachers are empowered (and supported) enough to realize they hold the answers to what to do–in their bare hands–that’s when the magic begins.
Teacher quality is also improved by guaranteeing all teachers use a guaranteed and viable curriculum that teaches actual standards and assesses for learning. What do I mean by guaranteed and viable? Guaranteed means that as a parent, I don’t have to worry that my two fourth-graders are going to read different novels, write different papers, or be taught different math lessons. Kim won’t learn grammar this year while Nolan, her brother, does not. Guaranteed does not mean scripted, nor does it mean boring, lack of creativity, or the absence of interventions and enrichment.
Guaranteed means: here is what we agree all of our students should gain from this year. This is the content; these are the standards; this is our process. Guaranteed means that no, I cannot “go rogue” and teach the butterfly unit because I just love butterflies. I cannot throw out the curriculum map because no one holds me accountable. I cannot live on my island because it’s safe and all I’ve known.
Guaranteed means: I need to collaborate. I need to stay in alignment with my colleagues. We need to work together, learn together, fail a little together. I’m not suggesting that every school teach the exact same curriculum across the state. I am, however, absolutely suggesting that within a district, this is the expectation.
And that can be tough for a lot of teachers and leaders. We want to do what we know–and sometimes, collaboration or changing our practice is incredibly uncomfortable. But so is inequity.
Alignment and accountability are not the same as micromanaging. If a teacher’s autonomy is more important than providing equitable access to learning for our students, then we have something very, very backwards in our field.
A guaranteed curriculum alone is not enough; it must also be viable, or in other words–doable. I’ve worked with some teams who share they can never re-teach areas of need because their maps keep them moving day after day. There’s too much to cram in, and that’s exactly what they’re doing: cramming. They don’t have time to stop and teach deeper. They can’t fit in discussions and collaboration with their students because the map says, “It’s time to go!”
When we drive, we (well, most of us) follow the speed limit. And for a reason. We recognize that there are places to speed up and places where we must slow down. We need to coach and guide our teachers to create curriculum maps and pacing guides that provide appropriate speed limits for learning. I’m not suggesting that all students learn at the exact same pace. In fact, a structured system of accountability actually provides teachers more time and space to finally figure out how to best re-teach, intervene, enrich, and anticipate struggle areas. When my team knows what we’re focusing on, we can dive into the weeds of what works and what doesn’t for our students. We can make real-time decisions that provide exact supports for groups and individuals. We can work smarter, not harder. But we must do this work together.
Transformation needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. We cannot afford to wait another decade or century to finally shift our beliefs. We must choose to follow the research of what works, and empower our teachers to lead with a trusted, guiding belief in power of their collective efficacy.