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Improving Our Schools From the Inside Out

Steven Kushner, PhD

High school psychology teacher; Instructor, University of Illinois at Chicago
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photo of a proud young woman

In light of the current issues flooding our education system, from an overemphasis on standardized testing to a shaky implementation of the Common Core State Standards, veteran teachers are turning to extreme measures to stress their dissonance: resigning. After being named "Top Teacher" by ABC's Live with Michael and Kelly, ninth grade teacher Stacie Starr quit because of newly-adopted reforms by her state. She expressed, "I can't do it anymore, not in this 'drill 'em and kill 'em' atmosphere."

Foremost, I cannot imagine what it must feel like leaving a profession that you love out of frustration and hopelessness. I am in no position to judge any teacher who expresses his or her grievances publicly and resigns.

But what happens to the teachers who decide to stay?

What happens to the next generation of teachers who are committed to the profession irrespective of decisions made outside of their personal classrooms? I refuse to become jaded and cynical or simply apathetic, counting down the days until retirement.

To the next generation of teachers, fostering a school culture of optimism and academic rigor begins within our schools -- with us -- not from national or administrative policies trickling down from the top. Consequently, rather than waiting for change, become the epicenter of change.

Outlined below are seven specific actions that teachers can take within their schools to cultivate meaningful changes.

1. Present Instructional Activities

Teaching can be extremely isolating. There are many days where I close my door and seldom interact with my colleagues. Regrettably, such isolation can blind us to the amazing things happening in other classrooms. Creating a space, such as department meetings or teacher institute days, for teachers to come together and present novel strategies and fresh ideas is imperative to ensuring growth and self-reflection. At the very least, it demonstrates to the entire staff that apathy and complacency are not acceptable.

2. Share Resources

Surfing the internet, I frequently come across fascinating websites, articles, and stories that fit well into other teachers' disciplines. For instance, I recently found a great website on overlapping maps that would help geography students appreciate the size and shape of countries and continents. On the surface, I have no obligation to share this resource with other teachers -- heck, I don't even teach this subject area. But taking a brief moment to forward such links to my colleagues underscores my commitment to student learning and supporting a unified staff.

3. Relay Words of Admiration

Last year, a colleague pulled me aside in the hallway to tell me she'd overheard students talking favorably about my teaching. It was a simple gesture on her part, but it meant the world to me. Teaching can often be a thankless job. In fact, months can pass before a student goes out of his or her way to express appreciation for your hard work. So, when overhearing students commend other teachers, make a conscious effort to relay those messages. It's a small gesture that goes a long way.

4. Run for Office

In a profession seemingly controlled by external forces, teachers can feel powerless in their ability to make a difference within their own school. Consequently, we often take a "there's nothing I can do" mentality and accept status quo. However, schools often provide opportunities for teachers to run or apply for elected positions, such as union representatives, professional development teams, teacher evaluation committees, building representatives, and other leadership roles. Schools need strong leadership, and running for office is a step toward empowerment.

5. Observe Your Colleagues Teach

I have always felt that teachers, both new and experienced, should be required to observe other teachers in their practice several times during the school year. Watching other instructional styles and teaching methods allows for greater self-reflection and an opportunity to acquire new ideas. Furthermore, it provides a space for collaboration between colleagues about best practices.

6. Harness Personal Interests

It might be shocking to students, but most teachers enjoy an array of activities and hobbies outside the classroom. As teachers, we must explore how these personal interests can be harnessed as resources for student learning and sparking new interests. For instance, teachers can convert a passion into a school-sponsored club. There is ample research indicating that participating in extracurricular activities positively impacts student academic performance and socioemotional development. In the past few years, I have witnessed many of my colleagues create student clubs outside of their disciplines, such as photography, film studies, and chess.

7. Walk Away From Pessimists

There is nothing more depressing than a school brimming with jaded teachers, the type who emit negative energy and pessimism wherever they go. Even more depressing is finding yourself surrounded by a band of cynics constantly grumbling about their job and badmouthing the entire education system. Conformity can be quite powerful, and for most of us, we have participated in these conversations just to appease these teachers. But improving our schools also begins with walking away. Instead of placating the "Debbie Downers," I challenge teachers to vocally oppose this sentiment and, instead, illuminate the amazing things you see on daily basis.

What intentional steps do you take for improving your school climate? Please tell us about it below in the comments section.

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Steven Kushner, PhD

High school psychology teacher; Instructor, University of Illinois at Chicago

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

This is a fabulous list, Steven, and confirms what I have always thought about what makes for happy, optimistic teachers. I agree that we need to take control of what we can in order to make our profession stronger. But I also know that a big part of this can come from admin, and it can be a lot harder to make these changes when a not-so-optimistic admin is in charge. Do you have suggestions for how teachers can stay optimistic when admin isn't supportive?

Steven Kushner, PhD's picture
Steven Kushner, PhD
High school psychology teacher; Instructor, University of Illinois at Chicago

Hi Laura, thank you for the response! I completely agree that admin plays a large role in the confidence of teachers, and ultimately willingness to make changes in the school. To be honest, I get optimism from my students (not to be cliche). When I close my classroom door there are no admin. There are no parents. There are no critics. I choose to let students dictate my happiness, not anyone else. Many teachers get so frustrated by external forces (e.g. testing) that they let it control their optimism and behavior all year. Students are not thinking about admin when they are sitting in your class eager to learn...so neither should you.

Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

Steven, I think the "inside" where the change needs to begin is "inside" each teacher. Relationship is at the heart of what we do and yet so many teachers are not skilled at maintaining relationships during times of conflict. Schools are sites of great conflict during the current transitioning from the 19th century model into something more suitable for the 21st century.
Even though relationships are so critical to success in learning and teaching, I'm not aware of any teacher education program that specifically focuses on how to maintain a relationship with all the Debbie Downers and the jaded teachers amongst our colleagues. We cannot ship them off to an isolated island somewhere. We're all in this together and so we need to find ways to relate to each other through it all.
I was drawn to your blog because it has a similar title to one I wrote a few months ago from a different perspective:
http://teachteens.org/2015/02/15/change-from-the-inside/

Teresa Osbourne's picture
Teresa Osbourne
GATE Teacher and Mentor

These are all great suggestions for bringing the joy and spark back into teaching. Yes--stifling state mandates, rules, regulations, unaware school admin, etc. can all take the passion we all came in with out of the profession... Really appreciate these simple, yet poignant and meaningful tips for staying grounded, connected and passionate about this wonderful job of ours. Thanks Steven!

Socraticea's picture

I appreciate the positivism and faith in school systems that have been expressed, but I must say a few words for those of us who work in broken schools. Please do not be so naive as to believe that everything that doesn't work in any given the school system is the fault of teachers who aren't trying to make things better. My school is a system led by a dictatorial staff of administrators who believe teachers must be "afraid for their jobs" in order for the principal and her assistants to maintain "respect for leadership." Ergo, four substandard educators have complete power over the daily operations of teachers who know the standards, the students, the subject matter, and the right and wrong way to effectively lead large groups of intelligent young people who would be counted among the brightest in the nation given the opportunity to learn from concerned, informed teachers who assign real literature and require in-depth writing, which is actually read and commented upon. I'm not proud to be associated with the teachers who are "in good" with the principal because their classes are quiet and 90% of their students graduate without knowing how to read a newspaper because our county believes in social promotion and grading papers by the "Great Karnak" method. Here, certain educators are not notified of department meetings, are not given textbooks or equipment for their classrooms and students, and are not given a chance to teach because admin and their "squads" are forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting departments to the lowest intellectual levels possible, and emphasizing aggressive, punitive evaluations that have nothing to do with whether students are learning or not. The principal actually tweets with students about teachers while class is in session. I was accused by a parent of teaching religion because I had my seniors read "Paradise Lost" and "Dante's Inferno." The parent complained all the way to the Superintendent, who came down on the principal fiercely. In turn, the principal demanded that I cease teaching religion and write an explanation for having done so, including a reason why I should keep my job when I should have known better. I smugly and quietly went back to my room and got a copy of the 12th grade literature textbook that was issued by the Board of Education for 12th graders and photocopied the pages that contained the excerpts of "Paradise Lost" and "Dante's Inferno" that we read, discussed, and wrote about in class. I wrote a memorandum to the principal and to the Super, attaching a copy of both works as well as the front, back, title page, publication data, school stamp, and table of contents of the textbook, as well as a copy of background articles and literary criticism that I gave to all students explaining that Milton's work on the fall of mankind is a work of fiction. I was not fired, nor was I admonished for ending my memo by saying that I was surprised that I had to defend the Board of Education's excellent decision to have seniors read two works that would put our graduates on par with graduates at highly ranked schools across the nation. I am happy for every teacher who has the opportunity to teach innovatively, joyfully, and successfully, for the benefit of the children who will be in charge of the schools when all of us have either retired or left the public school system with our self-respect in tact.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Oh Socraticea, how frustrating (and also, your response to that challenge was AWESOME) I wish I could throw a life raft to you and your colleagues, though i wouldn't float you away from your students, I'd just keep you above water while you manage the difficult situation you're managing. (Come to think of it, maybe I need a big fence to put between you, your students, and your admins?) In any case, know that we support you and we're rooting for you. How lucky you are to have each other!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

Socraticea,

The NCTE has great resources on its website if a work is challenged by parents, a school board, etc. I applaud you for giving your students challenging works of poetry in high school that cause them to consider fundamental issues of being human. ParadiseLost and The Inferno are foundational works of western culture, not religious texts, and to view them through a religious lens diminishes the artistic and poetic excellence of the works

Jonna Rose Libril's picture

As a future educator and a student as of now, having a optimistic discussion in the classroom and a optimistic facilitator can then encourage learners to be more attentive and to love school. With this article I agree that improving the school starts when the relationship of learners-teachers,parents, administration,etc. that is being unified will be a great influence and a nice environment for our students.
And having this issue about the broken schools, I do with the blogger that being optimistic of the teachers comes from his/her students, let us be reminded that teachers are at school for the students, let us set being professional and be inspired of teaching young minds..

Rick Gavin's picture
Rick Gavin
Elementary School Principal

Thanks for the great article Steven. While our situation is a little different here in Ontario, school culture is still the most important determining factor in student success and staff morale. As an administrator I know the power of a creative, passionate teacher who does everything she can to engage her students in their learning and is always striving to help them improve. Nothing moves other teachers like the model of a teacher such as yourself. I was a teacher for 19 years before becoming an admin and I have experienced some of the negativity that you describe and I agree that it is essential to not left yourself be held back by these "downers" whether they come from the staffroom, the office or the Board. I was always willing to try new things and when I saw something I thought would improve student learning I jumped right in. I kept what worked and discarded what didn't, adding to my toolbox as an educator. Now I try to learn together with my staff and have often changed direction or emphasis based on the advice and examples of my master teachers. As educators we need to surround ourselves with positive and progressive peers who are committed to student well-being and learning, leave the negative people and politics at the doors of our classrooms, and focus on what's best for our kids. Thanks for being one of those people.

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