Back to School Once More

Two weeks ago, my daughter started 4th grade. I was overly emotional about it, even tearing up when I met the teacher during the parent night the week before school began. Then again, it doesn’t take much to make me teary.

But still. I felt a mix of emotions about back to school time this year – from being proud of my daughter for all she’s learned so far from her wonderful teachers and for her excitement about being a 4th grader, to sadness because she’s growing up so fast (4th grade! Where did my little baby go?!), to nostalgia about my own positive experiences as a student way back when, to really feeling overcome with emotion about my not being a teacher anymore.

There are a lot of things I miss about teaching, and the whole process of school itself – the routines of it, the way a school year feels – excitement, anxiety, teenage hormones (I taught high school), the ups and downs, traditions, getting to know students, students learning, students figuring out what their next steps are after high school graduation, teenagers making baby steps into adulthood before your very eyes, assemblies, Open Houses, football games and other sporting events, spirit competitions, Homecoming, just the feeling of walking through the hallway during a passing period, faculty meetings, and on and on and on – in many, many ways, I really just miss it all.

So, whenever I enter a school, I feel it. That mix of sadness and joy when I am sitting in a school seeing it all just happen. Sigh.

Of course there are things I do not miss at all. But that’s a different post.

first day of school

But I’ll say this for certain: the start of a new school year is always filled with promise and joy. It’s a brand new start, the chance to make great first impressions, to create a sense of community in each classroom where learning can happen and students feel safe and supported and teachers feel empowered and excited. It happens each year, every time a new school year begins.

I’d like to say that all teachers experience such positive experiences with the start of a new year, but that isn’t always the case. And one of the reasons why is a simple one to identify, but a difficult one to solve: leadership.

The importance of a good principal cannot be overstated. Having a strong, committed, intelligent, empowering principal at the helm of a school can make or break a teacher’s career. Because working for someone who really knows what they are doing and who truly respects and empowers teachers makes teaching easier in many ways.

WHAT’S NEEDED? TEACHER AUTONOMY.

If you read anything at all about education, then you’ve heard about how great things seem to be in Finland. But as this article points out, what does stand out about Finland’s education system in general is how they treat their teachers. When some teachers from the U.S. visited Finland, here were some of their takeaways:

Nelson said the Finnish belief is: “‘You are the expert in the field, we do not need to test your kids to see how good you really are.’ … We don’t have that in the States. It really undermines teachers’ self-esteem.”

And teachers in Finland have the autonomy to decide what and how to teach in their own classrooms.

“American teachers hesitate to say, ‘oh, this looks good, let me try it,'” Vlasnik said. “That was one of my main takeaways: There’s no secret to education, there’s no secret formula that they’re doing right and we’re doing wrong, they’re just trying new things and being innovative and giving teachers more power.”

She said Finnish educational leaders believe “teachers know good instruction, we just need to let them do it.”

This is not a novel idea. Trusting teachers to do their job – BECAUSE THEY ARE TRAINED PROFESSIONALS – should be commonplace practice in every school district. But it’s not.

An article from last year in The Atlantic discussed what happened when some Finnish teachers taught here in the U.S. Guess what they noticed? The lack of autonomy. And that’s a very bad thing: “According to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, teacher autonomy is positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and retention. And while most U.S. public-school teachers report a moderate amount of control in the classroom, many say they have little autonomy.”

Let me repeat that in a different way: We have a teacher shortage. Want to retain teachers and attract new ones? Then trust them to do their jobs. Ask them what they need, and then give them the support they need. (Oh, and paying them more would help, too!)

Steven Singer, a middle school teacher and fellow blogger, wrote about not being a “hero teacher,” and instead discusses the hard work that teachers do every day, as well as what they want and need. Now imagine what public education would be like if we actually started listening to teachers!

And a Senator from Louisiana shared his own revelations about teaching when he began substituting in schools on his off time from the senate. His big takeaway: teaching is hard work! (Duh! said teachers everywhere.) And people who make policies about education ought to know something about how it’s done. (Yessssss! said same teachers.)

joy of learning
The opposite of the joy of learning

A POSITIVE EXAMPLE

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s an example.

When teachers return to school before a new year begins, they usually have anywhere from 1-4 days of professional development / meetings / planning / setting up classroom time. Ideally, most of this time would be spent planning and preparing for the school year, but frequently, this time is usurped by endless meetings and often mind-numbing professional development. Ask almost any teacher if they have enough prep time before the school year begins, and you’ll hear the same responses: No! We need time to plan! Let us plan!

My friend Chip, who teaches high school math at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California (where I taught with him for 10 years), recently emailed this to his principal for the way the opening of school was handled this year:

I can’t lie… I’ve done 18 of these weeks at MVH.  In the beginning I would dread having enough time in my classroom just to get ready… “why so many meetings?”

Then came the age of data… meetings were inundated in interpreting graphs about students I might have more of or less than the teacher sitting next to me.  “why so many meetings?”

Since I’ve never emailed a principal after these days… I just wanted to thank you for taking the focus off of content, off of data, off of outcomes.

These three days have been about what’s important… the students (seeing their faces on the slide hit me), the teachers (treating ourselves right with yoga and bike rides), the community (what binds us all).

I learned something this week.  Not about my content, not about data… about my awesome colleagues and their stories.  Mmmm… what you miss when you don’t ask the important questions!

Thanks for keeping it real and our eyes on the prize.

I can only hope this year will be better.

– Mr. Case

Here’s what the principal, Rich Carreon, wrote in response:

I have read this email 4-5 times already. I always appreciate the positive and constructive feedback. I don’t think you know how much sleep I lose over wanting to support and provide opportunities for each student. Thank you for the ongoing dialogue. This motivates me.

Respectfully,

Rich

There are several responses I had to reading this interaction (which Chip and Rich allowed to me share):

  1. I miss working there! I have some great memories of my time at this school.
  2. Chip is happy. And when Chip is happy, his students will be happy. And they’ll learn even more math than if Chip weren’t happy. (This applies to every teacher – when they are happy, that translates to their students. It’s called the joy of learning.)
  3. Rich is an inspirational leader. There needs to be more principals like him. In fact, I think there probably are a lot of principals like this, but in some places (like here in Nashville, for example) there are too many restrictions on principals. The fact that teachers and principals are judged by students’ test scores, for example – restrictions or laws like this don’t allow principals to be as supportive and empowering as they could be. And it really bothers me.
  4. The act of thanking someone and telling them why you appreciate something they did is so very powerful. We should all do this more often.

This all happened because there was a principal who clearly understands what teachers need to feel supported and then actually provided that. He was empowered by another great leader, Dr. Karen Janney, the superintendent of the district, who clearly understands what teachers need AND what principals need in order to ensure that teachers are feeling supported.

Karen was my teacher at San Diego State University when I was earning my administrative services credential, and she used to be my boss when she was an assistant superintendent. But she has also long been a dear friend. When I talked with her recently about this email exchange (which Rich had shared with her), she was excited because, as she told me, “We are doing all the things we talked about doing!” Meaning when she was teaching classes on leadership and talking about what’s really important – like focusing on building community, empowering teachers, and caring about the well being of everyone involved from the students and parents to the teachers to the district office personnel – now, as superintendent, she’s able to put those practices into action. And it’s clearly having a positive reaction.

THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT

This is the way school should be done.

This is how you get teachers to stay. (Well, one way, at least. Paying them more would help too! Have I mentioned that?)

This is how you get students to have the best environment for learning.

This is how you have joyful schools.

(Of course, schools should also be fully funded and free from standardized testing requirements that aren’t helpful as well. But those are factors over which districts do not have direct control.)

The way I see it, the reason not all districts or schools are like this is because of a lack of leadership. We are seeing that happen here in Nashville in Metro Nashville Public Schools. And let’s not forget, there is a national teacher shortage as well due to years of education reform tactics that have turned away many prospective teachers.

I wish more districts would recognize what teachers have been saying for years – stop focusing on the data and the test scores and all the punitive measures that have been in place since the dawn of the accountability movement, and instead, focus on what matters: People. Relationships. Community. Developing the joy of learning. And trust our teachers to teach the subjects for which they are trained to teach.

This article out of Oklahoma gave me some hope:

The “best practices” of recent years have it backward, emphasizing academics before laying a socio-emotional foundation. The New York Times’ David Brooks and Paul Tough summarize the cognitive research on how children learn from people who love them. James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate who attended Harding High School, shows that test scores don’t correlate with lifetime outcomes. Summarizing the science, Heckman says, “we boil all this down, … it’s almost like this Beatles song, you know, all it takes is love.” To students, it’s about “somebody love(s) you.”

Maybe the tide is turning slowly. But when I watch the news each day, it definitely doesn’t feel that way. I worry that too many teachers are leaving, and in doing so, schools are suffering. And when schools suffer, children and their education will suffer.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

And teachers, as you begin a new school year, I hope it is one filled with as many joyful moments as possible. Thank you for all you do.

HAVE A GREAT SCHOOL YEAR!

Thank you teachers

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4 thoughts on “Back to School Once More

  1. Brilliant, and in my experience, so true. The importance of good leadership and trust among his/her staff cannot be stated strongly enough. I am a school speech-language pathologist, and have worked in a number of buildings. You can feel within minutes of walking into a building whether or not the principal treats teachers and staff with respect and high professional regard, and the kids tend to behave/achieve in kind. Your references to the Finnish system evoked a happy memory–a teacher I worked with last fall started the year dubbing her classroom “Finland.” Her students used Finland as a noun (their classroom) and also as an adjective to describe their collaborative efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

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