By Errica Dotson-Hooper, Manager of the Teaching and Learning Center, HCDE
Whenever I make acquaintance with someone new and we get around to sharing what we do for a living, I am always amused at the responses I get. Blank stares, sighs and chuckles often follow when I share that I am a school administrator, which leads to a weightier conversation about the nature of the work itself. Questions and statements like:
“How do you do it?”
“How long can you keep up that pace?”
“God bless you”
“Better you than me”
These are the usual pats on the back I am awarded drenched in genuine pity.
But as I probe deeper into their thinking and the reasons for feeling the way that they do, I hear concerns about student behavior, lack of parental involvement, long hours of grading and planning as well as the unrealistic expectations placed upon teachers to perform miracles. These are just some of the complex issues mentioned that lead to the overall question of effectiveness.
Are we really making the best decisions in the methods that we utilize to educate our children? And if we are not, what are the areas within our locus of control that we fine tune to fix a broken system sooner than later?
The data is clear. The urgency to close the achievement gap persists despite our best efforts at school reform. We’ve increased the hours of professional development for teachers, creating spaces where hands on learning occurs. Instructional leaders have given more frequent, specific feedback and coached teachers around the “key look-fors” to increase effectiveness in their practice. We have provided social emotional supports for students to address some of the needs that Maslow says must be met before learning can begin. However, the trend persists that students in impoverished communities do not perform as well academically as their more affluent counterparts.
While we have changed some of our routines, we have failed to change our methodology. Our systems are outdated and mirror the values of the Industrial Era, which ultimately does not prepare students for success in our global economy. The bells, walking in straight lines, lecture style or “sit and get” teaching practices and the high value placed on being quiet and compliant do not adequately prepare students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and innovators in technology.
The question then becomes, how can we nurture and develop free thinkers in such confined spaces?
While I believe this is a multifaceted question that gets at the very heart of bringing true change to education, there are a few very practical ways we can begin to combat some of the ills of this faulty system. Right now, starting today, we can begin to implement practices that will revolutionize our work. And I believe that trust or lack thereof is one biggest challenges that must be addressed first.
John Maxwell has said that trust is the building block of all relationships. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Once people know that they are genuinely cared for, they are more likely to open up and allow themselves to be coached, developed and taught. And while most adults would agree with this idea, we don’t always see the footprint of this belief in our school system. Principals don’t fully trust teachers to do instructional work with fidelity. Teachers don’t trust that administrators are trying to help build their skillset but instead believe are trying to coach them out of the door. Students don’t trust that teachers care about them and can relate to their struggles. Families don’t trust schools to partner with them to be an agent of change in their homes and community. While there are exceptions to this rule, a lack of trust is a very real challenge to being able to move the needle in all aspects of the work. But how to rectify this issue?
- It is imperative that the school leader knows their staff and sees them. It is simply not enough to know a teacher’s certification area and their struggle areas because they are more than their work. Administrators need to spend time truly connecting with the heart of a teacher. Understanding their why, their goals and their needs is critical. This provides a window in to truly developing “the whole teacher.” And if a leader knows who that teacher truly is, the support will be a healing balm to whatever ails the teacher. This interest and this investment of time will reap great dividends throughout the year, especially in October and in February, when the going gets tough. If a teacher knows that the school leader cares for them, there is no limit to what can be accomplished together.
- Teachers must find ways to connect with their students. This can be accomplished by letting them have an authentic voice in the learning environment. Daily journaling and robust conversations on novels, current events and other issues of relevance will give students an opportunity to discover who they are in a nurturing climate of support. Giving students choice in the type of work product and authentic assessments that they are given will also allow teacher to have greater insight into where their students struggle and are gifted. This knowing can be revolutionary in the way instruction is delivered and received. Allowing teachers to lead clubs, advisory groups and electives will also create an opportunity for authentic connections that will propel learning and strengthen a student’s self-esteem.
- Schools must be intentional about inviting parents and community members in to partner with them in the work. A piece that is often overlooked is that school staff come in to serve the community and its students. Unless the team lives in the neighborhood, the staff is the guest and the service provider and therefore must seek out, hear and respond to the needs and concerns of the community. Local businesses and churches are anxious to collaborate and be a co-laborer in the work but are often shunned and disregarded. This cannot be the case. Utilize senior citizens as tutors. Get business owners to sponsor classrooms and campus wide initiatives. In addition, equip parents with the knowledge to appropriately support their children academically and socially. Classes on test preparation, technology or parenting would only strengthen families, which would in turn, would strengthen the school.
As I close conversations with friends, what I share with them is that education and serving children is a calling and should be handled with the utmost respect and care. This work is truly “soul work” and only genuine trust can fuel its success. To my fellow administrators I’d say that if your campus is struggling to move forward, work on building trust. I believe that this can refuel and repurpose the design, the vision and the mission of the campus, reaping great dividends that will have generational impact.
Errica Dotson-Hooper the Manager of Teaching & Learning for Harris County Department of Education. A native of Los Angeles, California, she is a graduate of Howard University (BA), Stephen F. Austin State University (MEd) and Dallas Theological Seminary (CGS-Christian Education). The Teach for America alum (Houston ’02) has worked in education for over 17 years in a variety of capacities serving staff and students in HISD, CEP, KIPP New Orleans and KIPP Houston. She is also church and organizational leadership strategist. She is a loving wife and a mother to a 5 year old daughter.
To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.