A teacher’s plea to bosses: Give us ‘time and autonomy to create solutions’


Betty Jones, of Keystone Elementary, studies training material to bring back to her school, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. Teachers participated in a statewide Common Core training program at Ridgeway High School in Memphis. These local teachers are “learning leaders”, who will go back and teach other teachers about better teaching strategies. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Karen Pulfer Focht)

If you talk to teachers about their jobs, one of the things you will hear most consistently is that they don’t have enough time to plan, collaborate and learn from each other. Here is an open letter from a teacher to superintendents and administrators everywhere explaining why this is so important. It was written by Paul Barnwell, who teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, KY. When not experimenting with urban gardening, bow hunting, writing his blog Mindful Stew, or traveling with his wife, he’s an active participant in Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network and the Center for Teaching Quality‘s Collaboratory.

 

By Paul Barnwell

As the school year winds down, visible traces of the year’s teaching and learning have begun to disappear. I’ve torn down posters, swept behind filing cabinets, recycled papers, and entered some final grades. And like many teachers who will continue working into the summer, I could use a break. It’s exhausting work.

The relentless challenges teachers face in helping students learn to read, develop social-emotional skills, and discover their passions—among the myriad policy and curriculum charges we endure—wear us down by the end of each year.

With so much on our plates, and few opportunities to scale solutions outside of the classroom, we teachers are longing for expanded opportunities to share what we know and can learn from one another. But we need time and support beyond the limits of traditional teacher schedules. More often than not, planning time is sparse and filled to the brim with daily demands such as contacting parents, organizing papers, and tweaking lesson plans at the last minute.

Superintendents and administrators: it’s time to ease some of our burdens by giving teachers the time and autonomy to create solutions to these problems. Create more teacherpreneur positions—hybrid roles in which teachers teach part time and lead without having to leave the classroom—and we’ll deliver.

Give me the time, and I’ll train and recruit members of my school district to join solutions-oriented virtual communities like the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, expanding professional learning networks beyond traditional face-to-face groups. Such networks give teachers time and space to share ideas with educators all over the world—and make teaching and learning experiences more powerful for all.

Give us the time, and we’ll follow in the footsteps of teacher leaders like Lori Nazareno to design and run teacher-powered schools (don’t worry, there’s still a need for administrators). In these schools, teachers have autonomy to create and manage learning programs, budgets, and other major factors affecting school success. Education Evolving reports that 91 percent of Americans believe teachers should have greater influence over decisions that affect student learning—so make it easier for us achieve what the public already trusts us to do as professionals.

Give me the time, and I’ll design and implement interdisciplinary, project-based learning opportunities for students. I’ll integrate the Common Core State Standards into 21st-century courses like Digital and Social Media Literacies. I’ll work to prove that we don’t need to—and shouldn’t—double down on teacher-driven instruction or high-stakes testing in the quest to help kids become college and career ready.

Give us the time, and teachers like my colleague Joe Franzen and Brent Peters will write grants to build school greenhouses, create partnerships with the Navajo Nation, and collaborate with teachers to integrate food-themed lessons rich in critical thinking. Joe works tirelessly to reverse the troubling downward trend of student engagement and creativity. Teachers like Franzen and Peters should be given the chance to help other educators authentically engage students in their communities and beyond.

The problem is: right now, most of us work tirelessly within the confines of traditional schedules and paradigms. If we want to innovate, it’s often done in spite of our official titles and full teaching loads. Want an example? Look at the thousands of educators engaging on Twitter on the evenings and weekends—not due to mandates, but only from a desire to improve their practice and connect with other educators.

This past spring, I spent 20 hours (unpaid, of my own initiative) participating in training to become an online community organizer for a virtual network of educators. This training energized me, and I’m ready to apply new ideas. But unless I’m given the time, this continued learning—and its application—will probably remain somewhat dormant. I’ll have to carve out minutes here and there, maybe an hour a week, to put new professional learning to work.

I know I’m not alone in desiring more flexibility and autonomy.

The data tells us that many educators share a similar perspective. One in four teachers are very interested in keeping themselves grounded in the classroom while given time to lead, scale innovations, create partnerships, and design learning spaces.

As a 10-year veteran educator, I’ll be ready for year eleven come August. I’ve seen some of my friends and colleagues move on to administrative and other non-classroom positions, but that’s not for me. I still want to teach. I know I’d miss the unpredictable moments and joy from interacting with students. But I also know that having more flexible scheduling and autonomy to innovate would allow me and others to create more pathways for students, teachers, and administrators to thrive.

My classroom may be barren, but this doesn’t mean that I’ve shut down for the summer. I’ll use this precious free time to continue to learn, refresh myself, and advocate for more hybrid opportunities for teachers.

 

(Update: Adding name of teacher)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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