Supporting great teachers

Each year as we begin a new school year we return to these essential questions: What makes great teachers possible and how can school leaders support good teachers?

Most teachers begin their careers in the classroom, with the door shut, and develop their skills alone.  The structure of most schools does not encourage or expect teachers to open their doors for support.  I was trained to think about teaching as a singular pursuit, devoid of collaboration. I was also trained to think about teaching as a kind of missionary work: to be a good teacher meant to be a hero. And there were no teams of heroes.

I’ve seen many images of teachers as heroes in American movies- from “Dangerous Minds” to “Dead Poets Society,”  “Stand and Deliver” to “Freedom Writers” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” American teachers appear as voices crying in the wilderness, working against the odds, and dedicating themselves heart, soul, mind, and body to inspiring their students.  Ask a class of aspiring teachers what kind of teachers they want to be, and inevitably, they will describe the roles created by Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss and other actors.   Ask a group of veteran teachers about these images and they will look at you disdainfully, convinced that you, a school leader, have lost your memory of the rigors or trials and tribulations of a teacher’s daily life.

Almost without exception movie principals are hidebound, shortsighted, and bullying people who oppose the heroic teachers and creativity. The teacher vs. administrator paradigm sets up great teachers as mavericks, working alone in their classrooms, creating a sort of separate world for their lucky students.  The heroic teacher and her separate world shine even more brightly when placed against a background of mediocrity and small thinking in the larger school.   That’s an awfully seductive image, and many teachers try hard to create these separate worlds.   In the movies, heroic teachers devote themselves to their jobs so completely that they sacrifice their own wider lives in the process, and come to see themselves as personally responsible for saving their students.  This model of teaching, I think, is terribly flawed and quite dangerous.  The message to principals like me, who see themselves as promoting and nurturing great teachers, is that getting out of the way is the best we can hope to do.

 

At Boston Arts Academy we work differently. At BAA, faculty and administrators engage together in discussions about what allows them to be great.  I think this allowing is the real job of the principal, and it is far more complicated and difficult than getting out of the way.

Much has been written about how to support novice teachers, but the question of how to help an already good teacher become great is more complex.  What kind of support does a good teacher really need from me in order to stay in the profession, grow better and stronger, and also to feel energized and valued?

At BAA we work to provide multiple opportunities for faculty to deepen their content knowledge, to expand their repertoire of teaching techniques, and to develop their skills as advisors to a small group of students. We do this by building a culture of cooperation among teachers where high quality in-school professional development is offered– a paradigm in direct opposition to the separate world idea. As a school leader, I also ask how much I can reasonably ask great teachers to do.

 

Recently I observed a veteran music teacher, Ms. McCarney, in her 9th grade literacy block. (All students at BAA take a grade-level writing and reading class. All teachers, no matter their discipline area, teach this class, usually as a team.) She was team teaching with a math teacher and his student teacher. This was a lot of adults in the very small room with 27 rambunctious 9th graders.  The students were using Elie Weisel’s Night as part of a unit on writing memoirs. Here is what I wrote to her after watching part of the class:

“Students seem to know what is about to happen. So when you say “Ready to split?” they are up on their feet and moving into three reading groups. In your group, of about eight, you distribute a small piece of paper with three words on it: indifference, distinguish, apathy. You lead the discussion as students go over definitions. [I want to know why these words and not others? What is your rationale?]

Next you direct the group to read the remainder of a chapter; you suggest different students to read. You start with John who stumbles over words that shouldn’t be difficult, but then I wonder how long he has been speaking English. No one seems startled when you ask John to re-read a word.  This seems to be expected; no one interrupts and reads for him. Other students want to read, including Kelvin, who is not embarrassed by his mistakes

[I think about how far we have come with students who once refused to read for fear of shame and who would just skip words rather than stumble. I want to mark this moment. Students are actually sounding out words. How wonderful! I want to know what the rules of the game are here. Are you the only one who can correct? I note that you do each time. Simply. Firmly. Do students have to repeat the word]?

You push up Latisha who has her head and body on the table. You ask her to read next. She proceeds with little expression.  John starts to illustrate as others are reading. A handout is in front of students but it seems only John is filling it in. [What is the protocol here? There is text master, illustrator, connector, questioner. When have you gone over these terms? I know these terms that we use for literature groups are being taught at all grade levels, but do you have specific ways of teaching this at 9th grade level? Do visual arts students, like John, always want to be the illustrator and is text master the hardest?  Do students have to rotate which term they pick? Must you experience all? I haven’t yet heard students in 9th grade use ‘connector’ much but I did watch an 11th grade literacy class in which students were very fluent with all four terms.]

When another student reads, and then stumbles, John begins to fill in for him. You remind him not to do that. “John, remember, everyone needs time to sound out words.”

You will see some of my questions/comments woven into these notes, already in brackets. I know I raise some “big” questions about our literacy instruction and the use of literature group vocabulary, but I know you’ve been doing this a long time so you’ll be able to fill me in. I so enjoyed this class. How well the three of you work together fairly seamlessly. How did you get to this point? I know that you and Mr. Sercome [the other teacher] asked to work together because you felt your styles complemented one another.  How does Tessa [the student teacher] feel about her role and competence? Also, students seem so on point. Just watching them move into different rooms was impressive. I also appreciated how you brought Latisha back. What is her trauma?  I know you had asked me to pay special attention to her.  Night is a hard book to read for all sorts of reasons.  I love the language—the sparseness but also the curtness of it. “Dregs of dawn” – what a phrase.  I look forward to debriefing with you. Let’s also talk about how the practices you employ in the literacy block transfer to your music classes.

Before an observation, I ask the teacher where she wants my attention. In what area does she most want feedback? Ms. McCarney asked me to observe the entire group and especially Latisha, as well as her interactions with the other two teachers.  After the observation, I begin a debrief by asking the teacher to tell me what went well and what was challenging. I sometimes like to use the debrief as a way for the teacher to talk to me in broad terms about the entire course. This is a way for me to learn, too.  Ms. McCarney begins immediately by talking about Latisha. She speaks almost without taking a breath, her words staccato in their speed. “She is suffering from horrible abuse in her family—her stepfather actually—and SST (Student Support Team) knows all about it. She’s both furious at me for letting them know, but also somewhere inside she’s also grateful. Her way of coping with reading Night is to detach herself completely from the meaning. She told me a week ago that she couldn’t bear to read the book.  Sometimes she gives me the cold shoulder in music class too, especially when we are analyzing text. We are working on a Porgy and Bess song that is also sad and she wants to shut down there, too. “

Ms. McCarney looks up at me. Where will I take the conversation next? Will I tell her she needs to get some distance and that she is too involved with Latisha?  Or will I hold some of Ms. McCarney’s pain and still get her to reflect on her practice?  On my good days, I hope that I can absorb the anguish that Ms. McCarney experiences. I hope that by allowing her to share the details of her work with this one student who means so much to her that I can help her regain some balance. I also hope that our discussion will give this excellent teacher a chance to see both what she does so well, and to think about questions she might not have considered earlier. My brief visit needs to give her added value, to help her see new directions for her teaching, and to keep her energized.

 

Teaching at BAA is decidedly not a solitary activity.  I may have very little influence on what goes on moment-to-moment in Ms. McCarney’s classrooms; however, our philosophy of collaboration is why we all teach a reading and writing literacy class, no matter if we are math, music, science or humanities teachers. Ms. McCarney meets regularly with her team to discuss students, to evaluate their work, and to develop curriculum. At the end of the year, she will spend two days with her colleagues reviewing and critiquing each other’s units and lessons, and creating notebooks on the year’s courses as they continue to build a collective archive of work.

Ms. McCarney and her colleagues are good teachers. As a principal I know how lucky I am to work with them.  Yet more important than their individual gifts is their ability to function as a collaborative team—the music team or 9th grade literacy team in this case.  These teachers have debated, compromised, selected, rejected, retooled, rethought, researched and reflected again in order to write the best possible 9th grade curriculum. They have brought in teachers from other disciplines, particularly arts teachers, to complement or assess their curriculum designs. They have learned to accept criticism; to be willing to admit to needing help, and to work in partnership. They have invited literacy experts from outside of the school to broaden their content knowledge. Arts teachers go through similar processes in their disciplines by inviting outsiders in for critiques and to sit in on team meetings.

Ms. McCarney is not the exception at BAA. As a leader, my job is to build a school in which all teachers work in teams, and have the time built into their schedules to talk, to visit each other’s classrooms, and to create curricula as carefully and self-critically as artists create their pieces.  If I do my job well, teachers will develop relationships with each other and with their students that are strong enough to withstand the enormous, sometimes crushing, pressures that the world puts on all of us.

At BAA, teachers work purposefully together. Learning to be vulnerable with one another is as important for teachers as for students. For example, in humanities classes, students spend one term with one teacher and another term with a different teacher. They synthesize their knowledge from both sections at the end of the semester. The student’s grade will be a combination of both terms, as well as of two teachers’ feedback. This complex system requires teachers to agree on content and assessment tools, and to communicate clearly about student progress. Teacher-to-teacher accountability is required and practiced. The same occurs in arts departments, where the entire team will judge a senior’s exit requirement.  Accountability also occurs in grade level literacy classes, like Ms. McCarney’s, where often the entire team (sometimes up to ten teachers) will need to agree on the scoring of an assignment. Deciding together what merits a 2 or a 3 (on a four point scaled rubric) for a project or assignment requires everyone to share their individual standards and, more importantly, develop normed standards.

To do this work well, a teacher needs to develop flexibility and strength. As a principal, it is my job to figure out how to support teachers to embrace and develop these qualities.

I describe flexibility as the ability to use different techniques for different kinds of learners. For example, flexibility is the skill of recognizing that each student is different and comes with a different set of individualized instructions for the teacher.  Flexibility is the sensitivity to know that the solution to a student who doesn’t understand you is more than talking louder and slower.  Flexibility is having many arrows in your quiver.

Strength is related to flexibility. It is the ability to withstand the onslaught of 26 different opinions in one class period , while recognizing that each student needs to understand the lesson—and often in her own way. The ability to maintain high standards while challenging everyone.  The ability to breathe calmly and maintain outward stability while inside you feel like you want to scream or cry. Lastly, strength is the willingness not to get into a power play with a student to show that you are strong.

Our teachers help each other maintain flexibility by stretching each other, challenging each other to look at a student or a task in a different way.  Teachers also help each other set boundaries and develop strength.  When Ms. McCarney worries out loud about Latisha, another teacher is likely to tell her gently, “We’re all working to help her.  And ultimately, we must accept that there are limits to what we can do.”  I like hearing one teacher tell another, “Time to go home now.”

Even as districts and states feed schools a more and more poisonous and limited diet of teacher-proof curricula, our faculty works intensely in collaborative teams to figure out the best ways to reach our students and bring them to high levels of achievement. The teachers I work with at BAA, like Ms. McCarney, don’t use their students’ disparate skill levels or too much violence or poverty in their neighborhoods to justify failure.  This isn’t because they are saints, although I frequently find them to be incredibly admirable. This is because this kind of blaming takes time away from the good part of their job, which is tackling challenges together.  The expectation of my teachers is that we all struggle continually to master our part of the work, hard as it is, so that our students can take their places on the world stage.

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3 Responses to “Supporting great teachers”


  1. 1 Eileen Shakespear September 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    As always, I get a charge out of Linda Nathan’s school portraits and out of the ideas she builds from those real school experiences. She is so right that we work better when we work together and that even the best teachers can work collaboratively to improve practice. I think the accomplished teacher will continue to find the classroom interesting as long as there are experiences that provoke, avenues for growth and some change and colleagues to ponder with. Thanks, Linda. Shakes

  2. 2 Beth Balliro September 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    The “philosophy of collaboration” that Linda describes here clearly pervades the spirit of the BAA climate- and in creating that spirit (or what some might call school climate) we best support the work of our teachers. A vibrant school spirit helps teachers know that their work is linked to a larger effort, that their unique artistry of teaching is acknowledged, and that others are sharing in the struggles alongside students. Thanks to Linda, as always, for this intimate view into the spirit of collaboration! -Beth Balliro

    • 3 lindanathan September 22, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      So nice- thank you, Beth!

      I’d be so interested to hear how other educators foster a spirit of collaboration… Ideas welcome!


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