by Katrina Fried
Responding to the release of a new study earlier this month that shows adult Americans rank below average in math, technology, and literacy skills as compared to 24 other developed countries, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told NBC’s Matt Lauer that the findings “confirm what so many of us already believe, that we have a real state of crisis.” In Florida, a group of parents are proceeding with a lawsuit against the state for neglecting its responsibility to offer an “efficient, safe, secure and uniform high-quality” education to their children. In a recent article in The Atlantic exploring why a whopping 40-50 percent of all teachers choose to quit the profession within their first five years in the classroom, the reasons cited range from a lack of respect and professional support, to being underpaid, overworked, and generally burnt out.
The symptoms of a crippled American education system are evident throughout our daily news cycles. Yet despite the increasing number of obstacles and frustrations with which public school teachers must contend, there continue to be thousands of educators across the country who remain deeply invested in their work and their students, and are finding creative ways not just to subsist within a flawed system, but to flourish. So why is it that some teachers are succeeding so exquisitely while others struggle? This is the driving question behind my new book American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom, which shines a spotlight on fifty truly outstanding teachers and invites readers into their classrooms to witness their methods, achievements, and impact firsthand. From their example, there is so much to be learned, not just about what it takes to triumph as a teacher, but about the strengths and weaknesses of our national educational system, and about what can be done to make it better.
The brilliant educators featured in American Teacher represent a wide assortment of backgrounds, academic subjects, experience levels, scholastic environments, and student demographics. Yet regardless of their many outward differences, there are certain shared ideas and principles about teaching that can be gleaned from all their profiles. I’ve gathered this group of precepts into the Twelve Rules for Being a True Classroom Hero. Of course there are no absolutes when it comes to defining the formula for great teaching (see Rule #1 as case in point!), but what follows is an excellent starting place.
Rule 1: Rules are made to be broken.
“Really good education is all about risk-taking and about making a mess; learning is chaotic, right?”—Michael Goodwin, English teacher at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School in Concord, MA and founder of the experimental interdisciplinary high school program–Rivers and Revolutions
Rule 2: All for one, and one for all.
“On the first day of school I always tell my students that our classroom is their second home and that our class is an extension of their family. I believe this is just as important as creating an exceptional curriculum.”—Alma Suney Park, 6th grade teacher at Eastside College Preparatory in East Palo Alto, CA
Rule 3: Bring your passions into the classroom.
“As a professional spoken-word poet, I try to embody how learning to read and write well serves a purpose beyond the academic. These are critical skills that have the power to open up new worlds of opportunities. My poetry provides an entry point for my students to engage in literature, and empowers them to delve into text when they may have otherwise been hesitant to do so.”—Clint Smith, English teacher at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, MD
Rule 4: Never teach to the test.
“Exceptional test scores, brilliant job applicants, and competitive colleges should simply be by-products of a great education, not the sole purpose of it.”—Josh Anderson, English teacher and debate coach at Olathe Northwest High School in Olathe, KS and 2007 Kansas Teacher of the Year
Rule 5: Keep it real.
“If you’re willing to take a little bit of a risk with some of your curriculum and experiment with more hands-on experiences with the kids, you can develop programs that are so much better adapted to the needs of the particular students you’re teaching, offering them real ways to apply their learning instead of just passively receiving information.”—Daryl Bilandzija, English, ecology, and theater teacher at Odyssey Charter School in Altadena, CA
Rule 6: There is no such thing as an un-teachable child.
“My students are kids just like any other kids. Of course they can learn. Of course they can love school. Of course they can build good relationships. Of course they have a voice. They just need to learn how to use it.”—Julia King, math and reading at DC Prep Edgewood Middle Campus in Washington, DC and 2013 DC Teacher of the Year
Rule 7: Necessity is the mother of all invention.
“So here I was, a first-year teacher, with 250 students and a hundred-dollar budget. My solution was bucket drumming. I had the idea to go to Home Depot and buy a bunch of five-gallon paint buckets to use as drums. The kids loved it . . . . This is my fourth year now, and it’s really taken off. The program has created almost a mini-culture of young drummers roaming around Philadelphia’s public schools.”—Jason Chuong, itinerant music teacher in the School District of Philadelphia
Rule 8: Produce good people, not just good students.
“The greatest challenge I face is to teach my students to be honorable in a dishonorable world. I want them to be decent even though they are growing up in an environment surrounded by indecency and a media that celebrates awful behavior . . . . My job is to show children that there is an alternative way to live one’s life.”—Rafe Esquith, 5th grade teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA
Rule 9: The future is now.
“Technology has changed my teaching and directly affected my students’ learning. It’s not that I consciously try to plan a lesson that has technology in it. It’s just that it’s woven in. It’s almost invisible.”—Jo-Ann Fox, 4th grade teacher at Reidy Creek Elementary School in Escondido, CA
Rule 10: Be the person you want your students to become.
“In order to expect commitment from my students, I must first demonstrate my own commitment to each of them. I take the time to try to understand each of them personally; I make myself available during lunch hours, free periods, and after school . . . . Through seeing that my motivations lie with their success and not my own track record, the students come to their own conclusions about my sincerity. It is after this realization that I begin to see my students, one by one, meeting me halfway.”—Jane Klir Viau, AP statistics and microeconomics teacher at the Frederick Douglass Academy 1 in New York City, NY
Rule 11: You can’t do it alone.
“Success does not occur in isolation . . . . It’s only because of the teacher next door, the teacher down the hall. It’s because of the secretaries. It’s because of the administration. It’s because of a whole staff working together to try and make good things happen. The magic formula in education is not hiring the right person. It’s hiring the right group of people, who all want to achieve the same goals.”—Jeffrey Charbonneau, physics, chemistry, engineering, and architecture teacher at Zillah High School in Zillah, WA and 2013 National Teacher of the Year
Rule 12: Be a student of your students.
“Teaching reflects you. If you can look at that reflection, you will really learn about yourself. That humbles me and brings me to tears when I talk about it. Because in the beginning, I was scared of what I saw. Kids find the cracks in your armor. It is not that they set out to, they just do. But if you are willing to step back and reflect, you can grow so much. It is a wonderful, unexpected caveat. You think you are going to teach, but boy, do you learn. I have come to understand that, truly, I am my students’ student.” —Jay Hoffman, multimedia, broadcasting, and social media teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, VT and 2013 Vermont Teacher of the Year