Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

How Can Teachers Fix Our Schools?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

I don't have a hook or a pithy anecdote to begin this post. I do, however, have the most important question I can think of in all its simplicity: How do we fix our schools?

Now, unless you're teaching with your head in the ground, you'd have heard by now that our educational system is fractured and under fire. I'm not willing to say it's totally broken, however, because it's still held together by the filaments of our country's unique dream -- that of providing a free and equitable education for every student.

We here at Edutopia.org know that there are challenges to achieve this goal. But along with our mission to provide a forum to share what works in public education, we also work to provide a venue for problem solving. We believe in teachers, and their ability to collaborate and solve any problem put before them. We also know that the only way schools can be "fixed" is to have teacher voices at the table.

Your Mission

And just as many times science has its infancy in science fiction, perhaps the answer to the question of just how do we fix schools lies in educational-fiction first. Think about that for a moment.

I can see you already shaking your head as you hit budget barrier after budget barrier in your thoughts. But the most effective solutions begin with the fantasy; so don't get bogged down with the nays yet.

Still not willing to jump in? Still getting shut down with thoughts of how to fund adult education courses for parents, providing nutritious meals for every child, Internet access for each district home, and daily collaboration time for each teacher?

OK, you're right. Maybe it's too much to start thinking about that which we can't control. And as important as we are, teachers cannot single-handedly fix all of the problems we currently face. But we can fix some. And some is better than this stalemate of broken that we now find ourselves in. So let's just start with fantasizing about that which we as teachers can fix. Just think about that which we can do something about.

Here are just some of the ways I believe that we teachers can spearhead some important changes in our schools:

Taking Action

Use project learning to solve community needs.

Set the students to the tasks ahead of them in the future. What are the local community needs? The global community needs? How do we solve them? Create project learning opportunities at the district, local, state, national level that pose real problems and set the students to implementing solutions of their own creation. Better yet, have them research and discover what those issues are first. Use writing and math and history and science to create the reports that will be used to persuade the policy makers at every level.

Allow the skills that your students need in their future to help drive the curriculum.

The year is 2020. What skills do college graduates need to know? Create a list with your department or school of those predicted skills and have that help in developing your thematic units and lessons. More importantly than the standards, make sure your lessons apply to skills that your students will need to have in their futures. (Read up on 21st-century skills.)

Adjust our rubrics to reflect the ability to communicate content, not just knowledge of content.

"Able to teach" should be the highest possible achievement on a classroom's rubric. After all, it says that to communicate an idea is as important as understanding the concept in isolation. Communication is a skill that should be on everyone's list of future skills. Students will need to not only understand content, but also to communicate that content to others. Our rubrics need to reflect students' abilities to communicate verbally and in written formats -- both online and offline.

Use brain development data.

As Judy Willis suggests standards should be based on the developmental brain research of what the age of the brain is capable of doing, not based on what we assume the brain is ready to learn. There are still traits of those old chapbooks in education. That is, prior to the illustrated primer, kids were taught like little adults.

We have come a long way since then. We're still not always teaching what students can do (more of what adults feel they should do). Maybe it's time to flip that philosophy? What triggers learning? Study the brain and what happens when it learns. Study MRIs when a second grade brain is stimulated, a fifth grade brain is stimulated, and a ninth grade brain is stimulated. Use that data to help guide our practice. If the brain is stimulated using certain methods, we should embed those strategies into our lesson delivery.

Pitch a new elective class, or start a new club.

Find your own joy in teaching again. It would make you happy to teach what you love, and that happiness trickles down to your students. Besides, our schools should sing with the sounds of extracurriculars. Remember when the standards weren't the goal, but the given, and we were rich with electives? Budgets may be to blame for their demise, sure, but enthusiasm for teaching electives has also been beaten out of many of us.

Rise again with the enthusiasm to teach that which you have loved your whole life -- photography, soccer, art appreciation, or engineering. I want remote controlled robots darting through the halls like a scene from Star Wars. I want to hear a kid tuning up his guitar in the quad, and I want kids coming to class sweaty from activity (and I'll want deodorant awaiting them when they do.)

What Next?

Granted, these changes are only a fraction of the equation that can truly turn our schools around. The families, the government and funding, and the students themselves all have to make changes if our schools are going to truly succeed.

But if we as teachers work to fix what we can, and if the other variables begin to stand up and take notice of our efforts and begin their own change, then maybe the filaments of our country's unique dream will begin to slowly strengthen and re-knit, forming the muscles that can perhaps engage effective healing.

So, I've given you five low-cost ways that teachers can begin the grassroots reform that we need in our schools. What does your list for teachers look like?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
Related Tags:

Comments (47)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brittany's picture

Hi Heather,

I could not agree with you more! With many issues and budgets that are completely out of the hands of teachers, we must also take the time to realize that some change can begin with us. I enjoyed the sections that discussed 21st century and communication skills. Each year, there are more advances on technology and other problem solving skills that children must grasp to become competent in today's world. Also, with job interviews done online and social communication done through websites, it is also important that our studnets get the chance to speak and listen in the classroom. While these tiny changes will not help us with budget cuts or larger issues, they will better prepare our students for the future and in the long run, that is our first priority.

Katy Grinnell's picture

In my city, we have tried to approve a new school facilities plan, and a facilities improvement plan. The voters approved neither of these plans. It is my personal opinion that teachers not only need the support of the administrators and parents, but they need the support of the community as well. In the case of my city, if the voters had approved one of the two plans, we would currently have much better and updated schools in our district. The community members need to be aware of all of the problems within the schools. It also needs to be clear how the new school/improvements would help.

SherryG's picture

What an inspiring blog! I agree we need to focus on what we can fix not what we can't. Students need to realize that they are a small part of a global picture and how others needs are just as important as theirs. Students are usually only aware of their small envioronment rather than community or peer needs. We can give them more exposure as to what we can do as a community to make the world a little better. I know I can't fix all my students problems, but I can make sure they are safe, supported and encouraged in their time with me!!

Nick Zomer's picture

I really feel that in this day of educational change and reform there are two distinct groups of teachers: those who are dealing with things by sticking to the status-quo and those who are not afraid to shake things up a little bit. Unfortunately, at least in my school district, there are more who do not want to "rock the boat" and keep doing things the same way that they have for years so that they do not become noticed and hopefully not be asked to do anything. It is these people that give our schools a bad name.

People on the outside often look past those of us who are willing to take risks and try something new in the name of increasing student engagement and acheivement. Right now, we are leaving our jobs and our future in the hands of legislators who have little idea of what needs to be done in our schools to make them meaningful places of learning. They only see the bottom line, and for them the bottom line is a dollar sign.

If we teacher leaders do not step up and make a difference in our schools, nothing is going to change. We have to be willing to do new things to engage our students so that they are willing to go home and talk about what they are doing in school. Parents talk to one another. The easiest way for us to instigate a change is to be willing to change the approach that we take to our teaching. By creating lessons and learning experiences that are going to hook our students, they are going to be more willing to explain to their parents and friends what is going on in schools. Those verbal rumblings will grow outside of the school walls and throughout the community. This does not require excess sums of money. It does not require contacting the media to come and see what is happening. It only requires teachers to break out of the mold of doing their same old routine, no longer using the same old boring worksheets, in order to make meaningful learning experiences for students.
-Nick Zomer

Jordan's picture

Heather,

This really got me thinking about the ways I can help to improve my own school that I currently teach in.

It is so important for all professionals to work together. Collaboration is key in order for student success to occur. One way to make this possible would be for administrators to allow common planning time once a week. The school that I am in now has scheduled planning time for all teachers one morning a week. We are contracted to be there and this really is a great way for all of us to come together and discuss the needs and problems we are facing in our classrooms.

We talk about common goals that we want our students to reach, how we can know that they have achieved these goals, and what we can do if our students are not successful in reaching the goals that we set forth. In order for this to work we need to work together and analyze collected data and cull information to provide useful feedback for all colleagues.

Once teachers can get together on the same page and collaborate as professionals, our students will be able to receive a more rich educational experience. Their learning will be meaningful and they will grow as lifelong learners.

Thanks for your thought-provoking questions!

Jordan's picture

Heather,

This really got me thinking about the ways I can help to improve my own school that I currently teach in.

It is so important for all professionals to work together. Collaboration is key in order for student success to occur. One way to make this possible would be for administrators to allow common planning time once a week. The school that I am in now has scheduled planning time for all teachers one morning a week. We are contracted to be there and this really is a great way for all of us to come together and discuss the needs and problems we are facing in our classrooms.

We talk about common goals that we want our students to reach, how we can know that they have achieved these goals, and what we can do if our students are not successful in reaching the goals that we set forth. In order for this to work we need to work together and analyze collected data and cull information to provide useful feedback for all colleagues.

Once teachers can get together on the same page and collaborate as professionals, our students will be able to receive a more rich educational experience. Their learning will be meaningful and they will grow as lifelong learners.

Thanks for your thought-provoking questions!

Dreanna Dallas's picture
Dreanna Dallas
5th Grade all subjects Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Heather, your ideas for fixing our schools are great. My school is currently looking at the district and school budget because of the financial decline of money. Sadly, we may be loosing art, music, Spanish, and possibly gym teachers. More frustrating than that, I may have to teach these classes. I was glad to see that you have reminded us of our possibilities. I can now imagine myself incorporating more project based learning and skills needed curriculum as a way to not be so overwhelmed about such a myriad of learning targets.

Jennifer Prendergast's picture

Hi Heather:
I really enjoyed reading your blog. How can we fix our schools, I wish I had the answer. It bothers me that budget always comes into question, it's always an issue. Take the economy for instance, in my area they are cutting jobs if teachers are not tenured yet and the assistants are also being let go. How can they do this to our children? Will there be fewer students; will they need to learn less? Since the budget doesn't allow an assistant for a special needs child do we let that child suffer? How can money be an issue!
You had some really great points and I think that educators as a whole need to learn how to and do what they can to fix schools. The idea of a schools working together would be wonderful, let's get the parents more involved, and mandate it! Have the communities get together to help fix the schools, what's more important? I think the children they are our future!
Great blog Heather, Thanks!

Katherine Davis's picture

Wow! This was a very inspiring post. I'm only one teacher, but I can start helping "fix our schools" myself. I love the idea of collaborating with colleagues to come up with a list of skills that our kids are really going to need to know. At times I feel like things that I'm required to teach are not relevant to them at all. I feel like I'm wasting their time and I could be teaching them more important things. They often ask, "Why are we learning this?" At times it's hard to come up with an answer other than "because it's in our state curriculum." Thank you for giving me some great ideas to take action myself.

Emily Mehlenbacher's picture

I can not agree more with your suggestion for schools to develop a list of what skills our students need to be equipped with for life in the 21st century. I heard a very startling statistic just the other day: 75% of the content that college students are currently studying will be useless in 5 years... I can not speak to the validity of this figure, but the concept that it presents is not, as you say, educational-fiction. In order to illustrate this concept I just have to point out that I have just recently figured out how to properly use my i-pod, just in time for debut of the i-pad... great. A very serious challenge is presented to us as educators as a result of this concept, we do not know what the world we are preparing our students for will be like. We can not fathom the new technology that will be produced and thus the new skills that will be required. Attempting to identify these skills is something that each district should do yearly on a collaborative level.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.