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It happened again: Another superstar bites the dust

It happened again: Another superstar bites the dust

We all know there’s a teacher shortage. NCTAF and others have continually documented trends that are not only disturbing, but paint a bleak picture of our future work force in education. Through our work we interact with teachers, administrators, parents and families, and even students. What we have witnessed is not unlike those observations Ted Dintersmith shared in “What Schools Could Be.” We see innovation, lack of support for using research on learning, a prolific focus on test scores, and more confusion among stakeholders around the story of learning our schools tell and share with their community at large, and parents with daily homework and lesson choices.

Our work is typically not focused on schools that are failing, but rather those that are succeeding and somehow stuck. Our observations have not necessarily been that teachers are worried about take over, stressed about testing, and concerned about equity and pay. Instead, we have seen teacher frustration increase exponentially with not recognizing opportunity. Opportunity that comes when your school and/or district doesn’t have to worry about take over, low test scores, etc.  Quite simply, we have heard too many times that a lack of vision is causing confusion to students, frustration to teachers, and endless wheel spinning (often focused on tasks) by administrators.

And today, it happened again.

A teacher who we have known for several years reached out. She’s decided to leave k12 education and her classroom. She loves her students. She continually serves as a model classroom for district and building leaders who are trying to encourage change in practice.
She took a leap of faith four years ago and jumped in, being among the first to make changes in her practice. These changes were driven by a new focus on inquiry and depth of knowledge (two common focal points for educational systems today).

She sat through training with our organization, drank the proverbial Kool Aid, and 100% agreed that research on learning gives us no choice but to ditch worksheets, focus on engagement, and help kids find value in school by making the experience both purposeful and meaningful on an individual student level.

She implemented fearlessly, was able to laugh at her errors recognizing them as learning opportunities, sought council when she was frustrated, asked questions that pushed everyone around her to clarify goals and values, and taught with some of the best growth rates in the district

But alas, she didn’t get a “free pass” when her district decided to implement curriculum that went directly against their goal of inquiry and improving student depth of knowledge. She was stuck in PLC meetings that were about curriculum and worksheets that had no correlation to her classroom nor the teaching practices that she was hired and trained to implement by the district in which she worked. As she was made to use “less than” tools and experiences, simply to “do what the others were doing” the frustration and confusion she saw in her students faces was unbearable. They knew what true learning looks like and were sad, confused, and disengaged when she was made to use assessments that were irrelevant, a step backwards, and not tied to her own pedagogy. Their families had come to the district swept in not by test scores, but by nice facilities, happy kids, and some emerging evidence of innovation and purposeful learning.

She faced questions from teachers in grades beyond hers. “Why are you doing that?” Or “Do you know that kind of teaching won’t help them pass the test?” Or “Can you just find a balance so the rest of us don’t take heat?” Or “We don’t do that at this grade level, why are you even doing that with the kids?” Every question was met as an opportunity for learning and growth, an opportunity to dialogue about standards, best practice, and research on learning. But then the time arrived when the district clearly had no vision and no intention of creating one. They were okay being “good enough,” they didn’t want to “press it with the union,” and they didn’t want to have to teach parents and families about why schools and practices must change to meet the needs of children.

The district made no use of quality data. They preached soft skills but never assessed or developed them in teachers or students. They continually made purchases that were in direct contradiction to the goals of developing students to be life long learners who were engaged contributors in their community. They took on initiative after initiative, project after project. The district was demonstrating a lack of drive to do anything well. They were focused not on developing human capacity but instead, on weaving a picture of progress. Her district didn’t realize that to progress you need research, strategies, outcomes, measures, and the capacity and wherewith-all to say “no” in order to say “yes” to what matters most: teaching and learning.

Everyone was to blame but no one would take responsibility. One leader would say, “don’t worry you are doing great things.” Another leader would say, “you need to use the curriculum.” Yet another would say, “just find a balance.” The parents of her students advocated for more of her type of teaching and the subsequent learning experiences for their children. Students faced continual challenges moving from a “model” classroom to one that is just “normal.”

So after seeking out coaching, reaching out to mentors, and trying to get the attention of any leader that would listen; she threw in the towel.

This is one of the most engaging, most educated, most empowering, and most inspiring teachers we have had the pleasure of working with. And she’s done. We hate these stories of system failure. These stories are not about dispositions, following directions, or being overworked. Instead these stories are about the inability of a system to draw a line in the sand and set clear expectations. These stories are about systems more concerned with keeping people happy and maintaining perceived quality that is test scores, then getting everyone on the same bus (or letting them simply get off the bus and move on).

We as an educational community just lost another super star. Why? Because we still don’t understand that the system must support and encourage and communicate clearly, effectively, consistently, and coherently about what they believe in, stand for, strive for, and expect. We see windows of hope (like those educators in Utah that are making clear objectives, tied to clear goals and articulated visions) but they are still too few. What can we do to help stop this pattern? Simply, we will do what we have always done: preach the importance of a cohesive system. To the teachers and leaders who teach the way kids learn, use research, implement assessments that are tied to goals, and help students find value in learning at school – keep going and try to share not only what is happening in your system but highlight and draw attention to those things in the system that are both supporting and discouraging best practice.

As always, we are here to help. Reach out; we can coach, connect, collaborate, and converse to help you support the system that must be addressed to meet the needs of students and teachers in the years ahead. We are at the tipping point, and it is time to do better for our kids and our teachers who are the front line in their education.