Archive for October, 2010

Giving Students a Voice

I just completed a timed writing sample as part of the application process to the Doctor of Education program I’ve mentioned previously.  The prompt required me to take a pro or con stance on allowing students to participate in the curriculum development process.  Please forgive the lack of links or expounding on examples; after all, I only had 45 minutes to complete it, and the clock was a-tickin’ the entire time.  Below is my unedited response, as provided to the university admissions folks.

Educators, and teachers in particular, are often relied upon to be experts in many areas: content area knowledge, behavior management, child psychology, and public relations are just a few of the fields teachers must be able to navigate proficiently, if not expertly, throughout the course of their careers.  Most often, when teachers need support in these areas, they can turn to colleagues, mentors, or even external sources such as consultants.  Curriculum development, however, is one field in which the “experts”, at times, reach out to the people most directly impacted by the choices made throughout the process: their students.  This is not a universally accepted practice, as many educators feel that as experts, we should dictate curriculum.  While few people would suggest swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum and asking students to devise their own curriculum in its entirety, there is certainly merit to the idea of students and educators working collaboratively to develop meaningful, relevant curriculum.

Recognizing students as stakeholders in their own education speaks volumes to the tone and atmosphere of a school community.  When students are asked their opinion, whether on a controversial topic discussed in class or a plan for a new school program, it sends a clear message that these young people are respected and valued as members of the community, as opposed to simply recipients of our collective wisdom.  Many school communities give lip service to the concept of respect, but fail to act in ways that support the platitudes.  At one of my previous schools, students were included in nearly every committee-based decision making process, including hiring teachers and professional development planning.  The difference in how those students related to their school versus how students at other schools at which I have worked related is utterly palpable.  While it may not be logistically possible to have face-to-face meetings with every individual student, especially in larger schools, it is possible to either meet with small groups or designated student representatives in the curriculum development process.  This act of inclusion not only actively demonstrates how the school values its students, it also gives the students a more acute sense of belonging to the school community and of having a vested interest in their own education.

When students feel they play a proactive, rather than reactive, role in their own learning, they tend to be more engaged with the subject matter.  Educators are constantly looking for ways to increase student engagement due to the suggested correlative relationship between engagement and learning outcomes – i.e., the more engaged students are with the material, the better they learn.  What better way for educators to learn what engages a student than to ask one?  As desirable as a wholly individualized learning program for each student may be, most schools do not seem to be up to the task yet.  It is possible, however, to collect feedback from students about their individual strengths and interests, as well as potential career goals for older students.  From these data, educators can then work to incorporate their desired skills and standards to be taught into a framework that best engages their students.  Anecdotally speaking, I have observed this phenomenon many times as both a teacher and a school psychologist, especially among students who struggled in traditional classroom settings.  Given the opportunity to practice skills such as research, writing, and problem-solving in a context in which they had some say, they tended to do much better there than when contexts were imposed upon them.  Again, one hundred percent agreement is beyond the scope of most schools at present, but soliciting students for this kind of feedback at least raises the opportunity for increasing engagement, and thereby learning.

Of the myriad of skills and standards teachers are expected to instill in their students, very few are more important than the love of learning.  By tapping students for their interests, strengths, and opinions in the curriculum development process, not only do we allow them to perform better on our local assessments, we also allow them to develop all these skills in such a way that they can and will continue to use them long after their formal education has ended.  When a student has learned to conduct research on a preferred topic, the skills involved in the research process will be transferable to other aspects of his life, both in and out of the school setting.  My former students may not remember every detail of every novel and play we read in our classes, but I would like to think that, because I gave them some flexibility and choice in their assignments, they have retained those skills because they learned them in a preferred, familiar environment, as opposed to being dragged kicking and screaming through the process learning about a topic with absolutely no connection to their lives.  Skills must be taught within some kind of authentic, meaningful context; otherwise, I fear they will be forgotten as quickly as they are taught and assessed.

There are varying degrees to which educators can involve students in developing curriculum.  Certainly, there is no “one size fits all” approach, and each individual district or building must approach the prospect as best fits their unique situation.  There are also logistical and philosophical challenges that each school will face as they attempt to meet the diverse needs of diverse communities; however, these challenges will not deter the school districts that feel strongly enough about the inclusion of all students in their own educational process.  The sense of ownership, community, and engagement that such a program can bring to a school should be reason enough to give each student some degree of say in his or her own education.

When Teachers Struggle

Although I live in Pennsylvania, I have worked in the New Jersey public school system my entire professional career, first as an English teacher, and currently as a school psychologist.  If you follow politics in NJ, you know that much of the new governor’s platform rhetoric is built around getting rid of “bad teachers”.

This, unfortunately, is a microcosm of the larger “debate” (is it really a debate?  Really?) happening in the US surrounding education.  Politicians, celebrities, filmmakers, and everyone who has ever attended school (and is therefore an expert in education) are calling for the heads of bad teachers.

I want to keep this as apolitical as possible, but I just need to get this off my chest: nobody likes a bad teacher, myself included.  Nobody likes a bad anything – that’s why they’re bad.  But for all their bluster, the wonks still haven’t quantified what makes a teacher “good” other than their students’ standardized test scores (an argument so fallacious I don’t even know where to begin).

Let’s take this to the local level (let’s also, for the sake of argument, set aside the major contributing factors to academic success, like family SES and parent involvement).  Maybe you know of a teacher in your school who struggles, for whatever reason.  Maybe his classroom management is weak.  Maybe she doesn’t know her subject as well as she thought.  Maybe the kids don’t like him or he’s just not connecting with the kids on some level.  Instead of cutting her loose and hiring a brand new teacher, doesn’t it make more sense to provide that person with supports to help her become a better teacher and thereby strengthen the school community?

Here’s a fun fact about which I’m not proud: I almost lost my job after my first year of teaching.  I readily admit I was in over my head and did not have the skills – coming in over a year after graduating college and two since I started student teaching – to do my job effectively, or at least not while coping with the stresses of the job, for which I was wholly unprepared.  The period from September 2000 to June 2001 was one of the worst periods of my life; however, with some good supports in place, I was able to stick it out, learn from my mistakes, and start what would become, by all accounts, a successful eight years of teaching.  These supports included:

  • Mentoring: I was paired with a veteran English teacher who was able to provide me with advice and act as a sounding board on a variety of topics – curricular and otherwise.  She helped me get through my first year in one piece, and also provided me with helpful insights about my practice, on both what I was doing poorly (which was a lot) and what I was doing well (which allowed me to build on my strengths and apply them to other areas).
  • Collaborative Colleagues: I always like to say that I had 30 mentors that first year.  While I worked closest with my ‘official’ mentor, the other folks in my department were only too willing to share materials, experiences, and even let me observe their classes in the name of improving my practice.  Nobody locked their file cabinets when I came snooping around, and folks were happy to let me grill them on how they overcame some of the problems I had.  It was also helpful to know that these fantastic teachers I respected so much did have the same problems I had at one time, and that I wasn’t defective.  It was also nice to have someone other than my direct supervisor to talk to and learn from (see below).
  • Support From Above: At no time in my first year did I think my supervisor or principal were out to get me.  I knew they wanted me to succeed because they backed up their verbal well-wishes with helpful, constructively critical observation writeups and providing access to teaching and classroom management resources.  My supervisor at the time also encouraged reflection and was available to me to sit & talk about what was troubling me and help me to troubleshoot and problem-solve my own issues.  It was often easier for me to do this with my colleagues during my first year because of my fear of being judged by my supervisor, but I did take her up on this offer in my second and third year of teaching.  It was a habit I continued through the rest of my time teaching with two other supervisors.

These supports all helped me to get my head around my new profession and what it means to work with young people.  If Year One was all about surviving, it was all about thriving from my second year on.  Once I had the basics down, I felt free to take more risks and explore new methods of learning with my students.  I had to learn to ride my bike before I could pop those wheelies, and while my first year was tough, you know that by my second year I was smiling well before Christmas.

Of course, there comes a point where losses need to be cut.  If a teacher makes it to the end of a probationary period and still has no control over the class, still is ignorant of their subject matter, or still can’t communicate in ways that reach young people, or for some reason chooses not to take advantage of the supports provided them, then perhaps it’s time for that discussion about finding a different line of work.  But to do so without providing some kind of rehabilitation (or, as in my case, regular old habilitation) smacks of arrogance – teachers are not interchangeable cogs.  Good teachers are not manufactured, they are grown. Nobody leaves an undergraduate education program as a “good” teacher – people can come in with a great deal of promise or potential, but good teaching is an art that takes years to develop, and there are no guarantees that substituting younger teachers for old ones will bring about any improvement whatsoever.

It seems to me what “bad” teachers need foremost are guidance and support, not ultimatums and pinkslips.