Technology Integration

Good Teachers Are the Product of Nurture, Not Just Nature

February 12, 2010

It has become an article of faith in the Washington thinktankocracy that teachers are the most important factor in their students' success. That's not an entirely bad thing. What professional doesn't want to be thought important?

But think-tank dwellers often draw the wrong conclusions from this claim. Most of their talk about teachers focuses on how to fire the bad ones, hire the good ones, and pay the really good ones. Too few people spare a thought for the environment and support teachers need to succeed.

Things would probably change if policymakers and the pundits who feed them spent more time in successful schools around the country. That's one of the core beliefs that fuel our work at the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 major education associations. Like the people at Edutopia, we spend a lot of time collecting stories about what is actually working in public schools across the country. One thing we've learned along the way: Good teachers are the product of nurture, not just nature.

If policymakers visited more schools, they would learn to value the conditions for teaching and learning. Take, for example, Viers Mill Elementary School in Maryland. The school went from struggling to exemplary without firing jaded veterans or importing eager young superstars. Instead, it created a culture where its teachers could collaborate, learn from each other, and grow as professionals.

And Viers Mill isn't alone in this approach. Have a look at Seaford Middle School in Delaware, Hernandez-Hughes Elementary in New York, Adlai Stephenson High School in Illinois, Aliceville Middle School in Alabama, or the Murphy K-8 School in Massachusetts. Collaboration and support are in the DNA of these schools and many others we've profiled on our website, Public School Insights.

Who isn't all for collaboration, motherhood and apple pie? It seems a truism. But a trip to these schools will remind you that true collaboration requires more than just a collegial climate. It takes careful, planning, focus, attention to detail, and staying power.

    In schools we've profiled, "collaboration" doesn't mean much without:
  • Clear and specific goals the entire staff is willing to own.
  • Frequent, structured meetings where teachers work together to address individual children's needs.
  • Sustained staff development that hews to school goals and focuses on continuous improvement.
  • Transparency that allows teachers to share their best work and learn from each other.
  • Shared leadership of school reform strategies. Teachers can't very well collaborate if they only follow orders.

There's even more to collaboration than I have space for here, but you get the point. It's a hard-nosed reform strategy, not just a fine sentiment. And that's a vital reason to keep telling stories about what is working in public schools.

In the coming year, this new blog will share important lessons my colleagues and I have learned from the nation's most successful schools. We're honored to help Edutopia close the yawning gap between what many policymakers seem to believe and what people in schools actually experience.

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