Until I actually joined the profession, I thought about the teachers I had as a student and figured they were born talented or clueless. Now I know otherwise.
I learned my lesson the hard way in 2003 when, straight out of NYU Film School, I joined an alternative certification teaching program. After seven weeks of summer training I found myself in charge of a fourth grade class at the Bronx’s P.S. 85.
Part of me understood that I was taking on a hard job; the program I’d joined existed mainly to fill chronic shortages of fully certified teachers at schools like P.S. 85 in high-poverty neighborhoods. On the other hand, I had always done well as a student and came to teaching with idealism and passion. How badly could it go?
Very badly. My good intentions and resume were little match for the daily grind of leading 26 nine-year-olds.
I stumbled right out of the gate. During my very first lesson boisterous Fausto earned raucous giggles by declaring to class, “That story is wack, yo!” He was testing my authority but I didn’t know how to handle it. I engaged him in an ugly power struggle, throwing gasoline on the flames.
Soon chaos spilled into the hall. My class was noisy in the hallways and my bulletin boards were a mess. Before long, an assistant principal informed me that I was a failure.
As the year wore on, I bonded with students and scratched out minor victories, but after the last day of school I resigned, joining the more than half of urban teachers who bolt the profession within the first five years.
That dysfunctional rookie initiation feels like a lifetime ago. In the years since, I returned to the classroom, earned a master’s degree in education, became a National Board Certified Teacher, and taught English at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C,, a non-selective, tuition-free public boarding school recognized by President Obama as “a true success story.”
At SEED, my eleventh- and twelfth-grade English students who hail mostly from Wards 7 and 8 publish paperback books of their creative writing, perform Shakespeare — most recently The Two Gentlemen of Verona — and lead college-level discussions on rigorous texts like Native Son. AP scores are up. It’s not always pretty, but my students have shown important progress toward college and career readiness — something I could never claim from my rookie misadventure at P.S. 85.
What accounts for the change? If I was born a great teacher I should have immediately rocked it at P.S. 85, and that certainly didn’t happen.
I learned it takes a village to build an accomplished teacher.
Many of the ingredients are within a teacher’s control; some are not. It’s important to unpack the recipe to see how more and more teachers can achieve sustained effectiveness — rather than depart the profession in discouragement, as I once did. And just like a recipe, eliminating key ingredients or counting on inferior-quality replacements is an invitation to disaster.
Here is how great teachers are made:
Fresh from liberal arts education, I should not have been allowed to immediately be entirely responsible for a class of 26 elementary school kids. I just didn’t know what I was doing. As a parent of a preschooler, it terrifies me that someone so unprepared could suddenly hold so much influence over my daughter’s education.
When I returned to teaching, it was through an M.A. program at Teachers College, Columbia University where I gained two semesters of highly structured student-teaching. This experience was invaluable; I had a reduced teaching load, room to experiment with my practice, and access to one-on-one feedback from mentors everyday.
When I took over my first class after grad school, it wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine, but it was functional with lows nowhere near as low as my P.S. 85 trial-by-fire. Time to learn the ropes of the craft and to observe a range of veteran educators should be non-negotiable for incoming teachers. Great teachers can’t be built without seeing others in action. This is a given in other professions; it’s a no-brainer that no musician can be great if she has never listened to many other professional musicians’ work.
The cost of graduate school is prohibitive for many, but clinical residency programs offer a relatively new and exciting model. Residents earn a stipend while they work as apprentices and learn the craft. Residency programs in cities Chicago and Denver are producing highly qualified teachers with retention rates significantly above the national average. The model is scalable; more investments in this area are needed.
IN THE SCHOOL
The other adults in the school building can make or break a teacher. At P.S. 85 the administration was adversarial; in faculty meetings the principal addressed teachers as “you people.” It was no place to develop talent.
The importance of a great principal can’t be overstated. Supportive school leaders who offer constructive feedback and relevant professional development can help raw teachers evolve into expert practitioners.
Collaboration among colleagues is also vital; no great teacher can simply shut her door to the outside world. Learning can’t be confined to the brick and mortar classroom — for students or teachers. It’s crucial that teachers form professional learning communities to share and incorporate best practices.
I didn’t invent the performance-based Shakespeare program that elicited extraordinary achievement in my SEED students; I learned about the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Text Alive! program from a colleague and teamed up with a teaching artist to implement it. And my principal, Kara Stacks, offered her full support.
OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL BUILDING
Great teachers have strong relationships with students’ families and engage in meaningful ways with the larger community. Going to a volleyball game and cheering your face off can sometimes make a world of difference.
Would-be great teachers can also be made or destroyed by district, state, or federal education policies. Education policy has tremendous impact on the ecosystems where teachers and student operate. For teachers in the system, it’s crucial to wage two campaigns. The first is with one’s students, trying to get the most out of them day in and day out. The second is for teachers to take on leadership roles and force their way into the public discourse to advocate for their students and their profession. This stuff matters. Silence is complicity with the status quo.
Right now is a kind of golden moment for teacher leadership. Grassroots organizations are popping up left and right to harness teachers’ voices and skills. And this year the U.S. Department of Education developed with over 3,500 teachers a forward-looking vision statement titled Project RESPECT that illustrates a transformed teaching profession for the new century. The vision of RESPECT could re-shape our school system into one that attracts and develops more great teachers.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
Many people possess the dispositions needed to be a great teacher. However, actually becoming one means an embrace of one’s craft, tremendous dedication to the job and continuous improvement, and participation in a healthy system that provides high-quality preparation, robust support, and environments that facilitate powerful student learning.
Great educators are cultivated, not anointed. Since every child deserves a great teacher and only moves through school once, we need to invest now in developing more excellent teachers. They’re not available off the shelf.