How to Reform Education, From the Perspective of a Teacher

The classroom can be a lonely place.

Despite being surrounded by students vying for attention, a teacher is often alone: both in the classroom where a teacher is solely responsible in explaining a grammar point or refocusing an errant student, and outside the classroom. 

Support systems are not the norm for most teachers across America. Teaching is not often a team sport, but rather a solo one.

School days begin early and extend until early evening, leaving little room for additional meetings with peers to discuss best practices. Tight school budgets make it difficult to support a teacher who can observe other classes and provide feedback. And, observation systems that have recently been created in a number of districts for the purpose of setting merit pay have become more judgmental than instructive for teachers' personal development.

In most professions, collaboration is an integral part of the job. Scientists, lawyers, doctors all work together, relying on support, feedback and discussion with peers and mentors.  

In the national discussion on education there has been a flurry of proposed solutions for improving the performance of schools – from hiring teachers with better credentials, to providing merit pay for high performers, to developing stronger accreditation programs, to firing ineffective teachers.

Whatever the merits of these approaches, I wonder if we might be wise to also help teachers, already in the school system, improve their game in the way that other professionals do.

From the perspective of each student's development, teaching is clearly a team effort — with many teachers working to support each child. Why not have a similar team effort to support teachers' development?

Schools could: develop mentorship systems where a master teacher could serve as a coach and mentor to budding teachers; designate meaningful time for teacher team meetings to discuss strategizing; establish a routine and frequent system where teachers could make regular visits other classrooms – young teachers could visit and learn from observing the classes of great teachers, and senior teachers could visit the classroom of younger teachers with the goal of providing meaningful feedback (rather than judging a performance in order to determine salary).

Such measures would most likely increase schools' personnel budgets. The hours needed to allow for meaningful support could not be added on to the already long teaching day.  New schedules would have to be drawn up, new cultures of a team mentality would have to be cultivated. But the payoff for students could be enormous.

Last year I experienced such a team teaching culture. I was teaching 6th grade in the Boston inner city as part of the national nonprofit enrichment extended day program.  Each teacher had their own classroom, their own collection of 20 middle schoolers.  But we also had a structured and extensive system of support. 

As a group of teachers, we met before class and we met after class. We discussed lesson plans and we practiced lessons. We strategized about specific students, we shared success stories, we talked through disappointing classes. We devised extra worksheets and passed them around in a flurry of paper.

My immediate boss not only circulated between our classrooms to observe, but occasionally pulled out a camera to film. Later, after students had gone home, we sat and discussed the films, as a coach does with their players: Could I have laid out this concept more clearly? What if I broke down those instructions to even more basic steps?

It is difficult to teach teaching.

You can't simulate the experience of teaching a classroom full of 6th graders, short of having an actual class of them in front of you. For the sake of practicality, most classes about teaching are therefore taught in the abstract.

I learned this my first year teaching when I shipped out to Thailand to teach at a northern university. While I had attended days of sessions intended to train me to be an effective teacher, I learned just as much in my first 45-minute class in Chiang Mai.

We know that great teachers make an enormous difference to students (Harvard and Columbia economists even quantified the impact, calculating that a great elementary school teacher increased the average lifetime earnings of a student by $25,000 compared to a subpar teacher).

But, how can we fill our classrooms with great teachers? We can create better teacher colleges, fire underperforming teachers, switch to merit based pay. But we can also let teachers support and teach each other.

And, with teachers learning from each other, the classroom might just become a bit less of a lonely place.