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Commentary: What I learned in school this year

Ellie Herman | May 28, 2014

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Teachers with students LAUSDWith this essay, Ellie Herman concludes her year in the classroom — and sharing her observations and insights with LA School Report.

This year, I had the remarkable experience of taking the academic year off to visit high schools across the socioeconomic spectrum in L.A. in an attempt to understand better what we mean when we talk about education.

As the school year ends, here are the five biggest things I’ve learned:

1. A great teacher serves the needs of the community—not some pre-packed top-down agenda.

It’s axiomatic these days that “all effective instruction looks alike.” That may be true. But so-called “effective” teaching, or teaching whose primary intent is to produce test score growth, does not necessarily meet the needs of all students. The great teachers I’ve seen first listen to the students in front of them and then try to meet those needs, often in a variety of ways and in different styles. Some teachers are wildly entertaining and charismatic; others rely on clear, consistent routines. Some teach from the traditional canon; others teach from high-interest pieces. What all of these teachers have in common, though, is a deep understanding of the needs of the students in front of them and a willingness to balance high standards with the reality of meeting those needs.

2. Teaching in a high-poverty community is a far more complex and difficult job than teaching in a more affluent community—and should be at a higher pay scale.

I’m not saying that teaching is ever easy. But teachers in affluent or middle-class communities are primarily dealing with students’ academic needs. In high-poverty communities, first of all, students are often coming in with skills so far below grade level that the standards-based reading expected of them is inaccessible. To get students closer to grade level, teachers need to learn a variety of reading intervention tactics, along with strategies for working with English learners. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Students often have multiple symptoms of trauma related to poverty including hunger, chaotic living situations, abuse and violence. Teachers in high-poverty communities need to become experts in dealing with all of these issues. Their pay should reflect the higher complexity of their job.

3. If we’re serious about retaining quality teachers in high-poverty communities, we need to give those teachers sustainable working conditions.

Over and over, I hear the same thing from teachers who work in underserved communities: they love their jobs but they don’t know how long they can keep going. Yes, teachers need to be paid more. But nobody has told me they’re leaving because of the pay. A former colleague who’s leaving the classroom to go to medical school told me that he’d love to stay in teaching, but he can’t take the workload. If we want to retain great teachers in high-poverty communities, we need to treat them like the experts they are and offer them conditions that allow them to do their jobs well. We need to give them time to read student writing, learn new strategies and collaborate. Otherwise, the most dedicated people will continue to burn out and leave.

4. You can’t have a great school without a great principal.

Whenever I see a great school, whether in the wealthiest community or the poorest, it always includes a principal with a strong, clear vision and a plan for how to execute that vision. Great teachers won’t stay long at a school without good leadership; they’ll find a place where their work is valued and their contributions make sense. I have no idea why we as a society are so obsessed with evaluating teachers when we do not have an equal obsession with evaluating principals. Instead, incompetent administrators seem to be moved around like chess pieces.

5. Love may not be the answer, but it’s a really good place to start.

Every great teacher I’ve followed, from the strictest to the most touchy-feely, cares deeply, palpably, about every student. This caring doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hugging their students or declaring that they love them—although some do. Others give a continual stream of positive individual support, looking for opportunities to celebrate even the smallest successes. There are no miracle cures for the problems of education. Even in the most caring classroom, some students will continue to fail. But this most unmeasurable of qualities, love, is at the heart of any room I’ve seen where people are genuinely learning together.

More than anything, the word I’ve heard consistently from excellent teachers or excellent schools is “conversation.” Education is not a destination. It is a process, one we hope our students will continue all their lives. To all the teachers and students who have let me listen in on your conversations this year, thank you for all that you’ve taught me. I’ve had the best teachers anyone could ever want.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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