"Please look at the labels on the walls and with your elbow partner; pick the top three priorities for educators and schools." Posted around the walls were the words: Curriculum, Assessment, Instruction, Professional Development, Student Learning, Equity, Differentiation, and Classroom Management. I gave the principals a few minutes to chat and come up with a prioritized list and then we began discussing their conclusions.
Some thought it was an obvious trick question and chose student learning as the number one priority. Others chose curriculum because, "If you have nothing to teach, students can't learn -- beat that!" Still others countered, "But if you have the best curriculum but low quality instruction, students won't learn either -- so there!" "If only affluent students learn, then there is no equity for poor students -- try that on for size!" This lively discussion continued for each of the elements.
Eventually, the principals who chose student learning stated, "If students aren't learning, it doesn't matter what we do; we are just spinning our wheels!" and that convinced the rest that they were right. Yet all of them were wrong. To get them on the right track I asked the principals, "What can any teacher do to assure that students are learning?" One principal said, "Well, we can make sure we have the best teachers and the best curriculum."
"Does that guarantee that the students will learn?"
"Well, no, but it makes it more probable. You know nothing is guaranteed."
"Can we control student learning?"
"Not fully, but. . . ."
"Who can control student learning?"
"The teachers... or, hmm, the students themselves I suppose."
"Exactly! We cannot control student learning, only the student can. Student learning should be the eventual goal and outcome of all of our efforts, but it is not what we do to get there. Now let's rethink your priority list.
What We Can Control
The discussion began in earnest again. Then the light bulb went on for one principal, "If we want students to learn, the most critical element is the teacher. So professional development is the overall most important thing we can do to help students learn." That principal got a gold star that day because he understood why he was participating in a teacher quality professional development.
I know this seems counterintuitive, especially since student learning is the standard for school success. While schools and teachers have a tremendous influence over student learning, there is nothing the teachers can do to make it happen. It is completely out of the control of teachers to make students learn; the students have to do it by themselves.
Teachers can entice the students and invite them to learn, and create wonderful learning environments that incite the students to learn, but the work and effort of learning rests solely on the shoulders of the students. So where should a school invest effort, time, and resources to help students? Invest in either finding the best teachers or providing exceptional professional development to help them become the best.
As another example of how those in education sometimes put emphasis on the wrong things, I read an article lambasting Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. chancellor of public schools, after she stepped down from her last position at StudentsFirst. The author of the article had little good to say about her or other school reformers but what troubled me most was how he blamed her for not addressing student (child) poverty. How does a school system fix student poverty? Like student learning, isn't it completely out of our control? His solution was to provide students with an allowance. Having a bit of money in their pockets doesn't address the conditions related to poverty that affect students' lives.
Ever since educator Ruby Payne introduced her debatable assertions that economically disadvantaged students are different than other students, poverty has become a talking point for educational pundits. Data does indicate that students who live in poverty are at risk of not being successful in school (here's an informative article on the effect of poverty on executive function). Further, data also indicates that schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be underperforming. However, data also does point to the notion that good teachers can overcome societal problems interfering with an individual student's learning.
The cycle of poverty does not have a quick fix though we know one powerful element that can work against it: education. It's important that we should stick with what we are good at -- we are expert educators (not social workers, family counselors, or financial planners). There's so much we can't control, like poverty, but we do know we can control how we invite and inspire student to learn. We can find creative ways to deal with whatever issues the students bring with them. And we can earnestly strive to send them home more prepared each day than when they arrived.
Developing as Teachers
Being concerned about student learning and child poverty are laudable concerns, but true educators reject the premise that students struggling with poverty cannot learn as well as middle- and upper-income students. Both of these related issues should not be the focus of educators. The undeniable truth is that exceptional teaching inspires exceptional learning, and that can be helpful when it comes to addressing the cycle of poverty afflicting some of our students.
Meanwhile the focus of educators should be, and for most educators is, "How do I prepare myself to be the best teacher possible?" Having said that, what professional development has made a lasting impact on your teaching? Please share in the comments section below.