By Justin Minkel
President Obama has often been described as an eloquent speaker. I learned this week that he is an eloquent listener, too.
The table in the West Wing was set for six: the president, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and four teachers. The hour-long conversation was serious but relaxed. The four of us have each been teaching in high-poverty schools for over a decade, and the president asked us to respond to a few questions that were on his mind.
The president wanted to know: Why had we stayed in our schools? What could he and the secretary do to support teachers in high-need schools? What policies could ensure that students who need the strongest teachers receive them?
This is what we told him:
1. There’s nothing wrong with the kids.
I asked Dwight Davis, an African-American fifth grade teacher born and raised in Washington, D.C., why he has stayed with teaching. He didn’t hesitate: “The kids and the families.”
We told our students’ stories to the president. I talked about Cesar, a second grader who won $10 in a writing contest. When I asked what he planned to do with his winnings, he said, “I’m going to give it to my mom to help her buy food for our family.”
I told the president about Melissa, a second grader who became the only literate person in her family through a home library project and plenty of school-wide support. When we were reading together one day, Melissa told me, “Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV, they tell me, ‘Melissa, turn off the TV and read to us,’ so I do.”
Students like Melissa and Cesar, who walk into the classroom with greater challenges than more affluent students, are not the obstacle to attracting skilled teachers to high-poverty schools. They’re the motivation.
2. “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”
The No Child Left Behind era still taints the system at every level. The creativity, curiosity, and sense of wonder that make students such a joy to teach have been stripped from students’ experience at school, particularly in low-income schools desperate to raise test scores.
In place of literature, science experiments, and engineering design challenges, students in these schools often receive scripted curricula, test prep booklets, and worksheets. Drudgery has been substituted for rigor.
The teachers I know are willing to work harder on behalf of kids like Cesar and Melissa. But they are unwilling to teach in sterile classrooms stripped of literature, the arts, and critical thinking in order to drill students on which one of four bubbles to pick. Given the low quality of many of those tests, it doesn’t matter what bubble they pick. Passing poorly designed tests will not give them greater knowledge, skills to succeed in college and careers, or the opportunity to lead a meaningful life.
The writer Philip Pullman said, “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.” If we want students to excel—and if we want skilled teachers to seek positions in high-poverty schools—we have to restore some of that delight.
3. It’s not about good and bad teachers. It’s about good and bad teaching.
The teachers at my school are dramatically better than we were five or ten years ago. The reason is simple: we’ve worked with our principal to design a culture of collaboration, innovation, and peer observation, with time built into the school day for purposeful professional development to take place.
You never hear teachers say of a student, “She’s a bad learner—we need to get rid of her.” Yet that is often the go-to solution for reformers outside the system when it comes to “bad teachers.”
There are a handful of teachers who can’t or won’t get better—but they are a scant sliver of the profession. If we provide mentoring, collaboration time, and job-embedded professional development, the vast majority of teachers will continue to improve. Most people want to be effective at what they do. That is particularly true of professionals who have chosen to work with children.
I wasn’t good at teaching when I started, and I’m not where I want to be five years from now. I’ve gotten better the same way that everyone—from doctors to pilots to presidents—gets better at their job: through reflection, collaboration, and mentoring.
Yes, we want to recruit talented new teachers who walk in the door with high potential for perseverance, intelligence, and compassion. But we don’t need to swap out all the bad and mediocre teachers for better teachers, anymore than we should swap out our struggling students for more advanced students. We need to build systems that support every teacher willing to put in the work it takes to move from novice to competent, competent to excellent, and beyond.
4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do those same things.
The systems we create for teachers have a profound impact on the classrooms we design for students. Teachers have long been seen as consumers of policy, professional development, curriculum, and research, when we should be partners in creating it.
The working conditions that matter most to teachers in Generation X and Y have to do with intangibles like autonomy, collaboration time, and the potential for innovation. Scripted curricula, test prep, and micro-management are anathema to that kind of school culture, and they have a devastating effect on both teacher recruitment and retention.
The hopeful news is that we can create the conditions for excellence in lower-income schools. They exist where I teach: Jones Elementary, a school with 99% poverty and virtually 0 percent teacher turnover.
Every year, we receive students who come in angry, disrespectful, and ashamed of their struggle to learn. These same students become thoughtful scholars and compassionate human beings once their needs are met and their trust in teachers has been earned.
There’s nothing wrong with the kids. There is plenty wrong with the system—but none of it is inevitable. An invitation to classroom teachers from the holder of the highest office in the land won’t cure all that ails that system. But it’s a damn good place to start.
The last thing the president said to us was, “You all make me feel hopeful.” President Obama, you left us hopeful, too.