Professional Learning

How Can Teachers Fix Our Schools?

April 2, 2010

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 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 Willissuggests 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?

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