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How Can Teachers Fix Our Schools?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
Related Tags: Teacher Leadership
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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 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?

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Comments (47) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

George Sumner's picture

I loved your idea ths ""Able to teach" should be the highest possible achievement on a classroom's rubric". You can always identify the student with the greatest understanding of a concept because they are the one's teaching the other children. I will certainly try to use 'ability to teach" more often as a measure of true understanding.

Laura McCall's picture
Laura McCall
More-at-Four (Pre-K) Teacher's Assistant

I love how your keep points related directly to having students obtain 21st century skills. Long term, community based projects require students to problem solve and collaborate.
Effective communication skills are essential for future academic and professional success. Providing our students with clubs and extra-curricular activities will expand their access to knowledge and skills outside the require curriculum. Just this year my elementary school has added two more after school programs: Go Far and The Green Team. Go Far is an after school running club and trains and conditions students. Our Go Far club kicked off our St. Patty's Day parade by running the length of the parade (3 miles!) The Green Team is an environmental club that incorporates activities and earth-friendly projects to enhance student's home and school environments. Just recently they started a composting project on our campus. Both groups are run by teacher and parent volunteers with a little funding help from our PTA. I think these are two great examples of what can be achieved by donating your time, effort, and expertise!

Ally's picture
High school science teacher from Lacey Twp, New Jersey

As a relatively new teacher I realized that I can only control how I perceive and handle situations. The list of actions that you have provided has given me numerous ideas for opportunities in which I can make changes.

Project based learning is a great idea that I have started to incorporate into my teaching. The projects that we complete in class are not only important to my students within the community of the school, but it also enables my students to be involved in something that they are personally invested in. As a result my students have less behavior issues and perform better academically.

Tying assignments into the aspirations of my students will produce students that are more willing to complete them. As for your statement of adjusting rubrics to not reflect knowledge of content, but application of content, I whole heartedly agree. As a chemistry teacher I have taught my students not only the concepts through lectures, but also through hands on labs that allow them to see the concepts in action.

Overall, I believe that taking action and making changes in my classroom will provide me with knowledge and insight that I can pass on to my colleagues in order to make school wide change. Through the relationships I have developed with my peers through our professional learning community I will be able to make a difference with not only students, but with all students within my school.

Thanks so much for your post.


Rachel Stripling's picture

I once saw a statement that read "don't get so busy doing what you "have to do" that you don't have time to do what you are "created to do." This was said by a youth pastor, so it was mentioned in a spiritual sense, but I feel that it can also be applied to the educational world as well. Don't spend so much time focusing on teaching to the test or test scores that you neglect the true reason for choosing this occupation. If student learning is at the center of our focus, then we as educators will do everything in our power to help and see them succeed. Teaching methods and strategies should be geared and adjusted to promote the best possible situations in which our students can learn. When we go back to the big decision of why we chose to teach, we will then find that passion that we once had. This passion will flow to our students, colleagues, and administration, thus changing our school!

Whitney Barber's picture

I love your idea about starting a new class or club. I have begun thinking about a club or group that I would like to start up next year. I have thought about starting up a book club for my students who absolutely love to read, and want to delve deeper into the literature. My major in college was English Literature, so the thought of taking what I love and inspiring the kids to do more is so exciting. This would also be a useful way of finding out what my students like to read on their own time and what kind of activities they enjoy. This also might pull in some reluctant readers or learners who just want to hang out with me in my classroom after school, as many already do daily. Loved your post!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

For the first time this year, I also took Book Clubs to the online forum. I used a great site, to introduce blogging to the kids. Many had already done it, of course, but by giving them the tools of netiquette and some structure with commenting on each other discussion posts about their individual books, it gave them additional language to write about. It increased the rigor of the discussion, and hopefully they'll take that rigor with them to other sites beyond our school-assigned one. I'll post something soon of my guidelines and How to Comment on a Blog sheet, if that would help get you started.

Thanks for your comment and enthusiasm.

-Heather WG

Devin Jannotta's picture


What about those school districts where parents aren't involved in their students education. Maybe not all parents are choosing to not be involved, most of them are busy working two jobs, some are single parents, some can't help that they aren't educated themselves, and some are not good role models for their children.

I liked your post and you raised some great points, but I'm thinking about those school districts where parents may not be an option for bettering, helping, or fixing education...?

Devin Jannotta's picture


You are exactly right. I am fortunate enough to work in a school where collaboration is very successful. My department and team is constantly working together at all hours in the day to better our teaching for our students. I think about how lucky I am every day that I am lucky enough to be in a school where our motto is collaboration because I could not imagine how hard my job would be if I didn't have that. Becuase like you said we don't close our doors at 5 pm and we don't close doors after our undergrad. We are always learning and improving and the only way to do that is to collaborate!

Devin Jannotta's picture


Great website! We need more collaboration across the country. I think sometimes we limit our learning and collaboration to just teachers in our school or district and we forget that we can branch out all across the country to get help and learn to better our classroom and teaching. I wish that there were more sites out there that were beneficial to this crucial aspect of teaching.


Jacob Tousignaut's picture

I am a current student with little in class teaching experience. I love working with kids and hope to teach middle school math. I fully embrace the saying, "they are our future leaders." The reason I choose middle school is because I feel like that is the beginning of their academic careers. Elementary students are still developing their "school skills" but it is in middle school where they begin to develop themselves as students.

This blog struck me because I have often wondered what my role will be as a teacher today. What difference can I make? I really like objectives given are important in developing our students. As students it is easy to get consumed in the assignments and tunnel our vision to just the assignments. Developing ways to get students thinking outside the classroom is important. The classroom will not be their lives after they graduate high school and/or (hopefully) college. Knowledge of the content should not just be the only thing taught in the classroom. Applying it to real life situations should be the main focus and teaching students how this applies is important. I wondered how is learning this going to help me in real life? Those questions need to be answered and we as teachers have to be able to answer them. If they can not be answered might I suggest revising the way it is taught in order to apply it to real life situations. Also allowing the students to develop to their full potential is important. I do not want to be the teacher that places a threshold on my student's capabilities. I would like to allow them to learn and grow not only academically but personally.

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