What Teachers Really Need
By Greg Bendis-Grab
The critique of our education system is nothing new. It goes back to the very beginnings of its existence. But every week a new article heralds the downfall of our schools. In particular there has been an emphasis on teachers, both highlighting their importance and vilifying them as the source of the problem. Teacher accountability, teacher supervision, and performance-based incentives have been proposed to improve teacher quality. The thinking is that if we get or make better teachers we will have a better education system. Of course it makes sense that the person who is the leader in the classroom is critical to our school’s success, but what are the shortcomings of this perspective, and why isn’t it helping?
Schools are complex systems like the U.S. political structure or natural ecosystems. One thing that we know about systems is that you can’t change the system by isolating one aspect of it. In the political system we tend to put too much emphasis on the president without seeing the system-wide processes that limit the president’s power. In the classroom the teacher is similarly constrained by a complex set of systemic forces. You can’t expect to improve education by focusing on one aspect alone. In fact, as we have learned from conservation, ecology sometimes focusing on one aspect, such as introducing a new species into a complex ecosystem can have disastrous effects on the system as a whole. This is where invasive species originated. So, blaming teachers for the problems of education is not the answer. Instead, we need to start looking at our education system differently.
Schools are institutions for learning. We may first have to spend some time redefining what learning is and what it consists of. It is not a collection of facts that students need to memorize. Knowledge is contextually embedded in the world around us. Students need to understand that interconnected structure. They also need to gain competency in a variety of practices that will allow them to be successful in their future lives. Practices include making written arguments, analyzing data, conducting experiments, communicating mathematical ideas, comparing historical events, etc., They also need to acquire dispositions and attitudes that are conducive to learning. Perhaps most important, they need to gain empathy for the people around them.
We need to change our perspective on learning and how schools work. We need to redefine the systems at work in education so that authentic learning can take place. However, as part of this effort we do need to support teachers as they play a key role in structuring the environment for learning and acting as role models for students. However, instead of focusing on the teacher as an isolated component, we need to help support them within the educational system that exists.
An important first step is to focus as much on teacher learning as we do on student learning. Complex systems are full of feedback loops that can amplify or diminish changes over time. Teacher learning is a powerful positive feedback loop that improves teachers, learning environments, and the student experience. Focusing on teacher learning is more than a single day professional development training, an observation checklist or a salary incentive. It is ongoing, embedded in classroom practice, and part of teachers everyday experience. Teachers need to be supported to think of themselves as professionals and focus on their own learning. In this way we are creating structures in the educational system to support teachers rather than blaming them.
The work of Carol Dweck on mindsets has been transformative to thinking about student learning. She argues that viewing intelligence as something that is malleable and improved through hard work has a huge impact on student success. Similarly, teachers adopting a growth mindset is just as important to the success of our schools. We need to encourage a growth mindset by taking the focus off of accountability and starting to view our teachers as expert educators. We need to put an end to a deficit model emphasizing what teachers lack and instead focus on the strengths that teachers already have. This will help encourage a growth mindset in teachers.
One aspect of teaching that works against teacher learning and growth is the isolated nature of our schools. Teachers spend every day teaching students without opportunities to observe colleagues and collaborate with them. We need to build time and space into the day so that teachers can engage in these important professional activities.. This is a structural change that can improve classroom learning.
So are teachers the key to improving education? Perhaps, but let’s put supportive structures in place instead of threatening them. If we want to improve student learning we need to start by building empathy for our teachers.