9 Things Every School and School System Should Learn from Teach For America

In a previous PolicyMic article, I made it clear that I do not believe that Teach For America is the answer to our national education crisis, however I do believe there is plenty to be learned from this organization. What follows is a list of common ideas taught and used by Teach For America, which would be useful to any school or school system.

9. Learning can be fun           

It is no secret that students learn more when they are having fun in the process. One of the important ideas taught to TFA corps members during summer institute training is the importance of creating engaging lesson plans. A large part of the trainer’s job over the summer is to make student learning fun for future teachers. Unfortunately, failing schools tend to emphasize rote learning both for students and for their teachers. Students are subjected to worksheet packets and standardized test drilling; and teachers are expected to emphasize these skills, instead of being asked how to get the material across to students in a more innovative way. When teachers are excited about the lessons that they are teaching, their students will be also, and more learning will occur.

8. If you want successful schools, you must invest the right people

Teach For America uses the Teaching As Leadership (TAL) Rubric as a means of coaching new corps members into becoming effective teachers. One of the elements on this rubric is the investment element. This element focuses on the importance of investing students, parents, and co-workers in the ultimate goal of student achievement. Schools are filled with teachers that have had their love for the classroom beaten out of them due to a lack of focus on their investment in their work. People need to feel that the work that they do every day is important. If we want to improve education schools need to make sure that every stakeholder is invested in main goal of student achievement.

7. Professional Development leads to student achievement

As an educator, I wasted many moments in large auditoriums and in the school media center at “professional development” sessions that we were neither professional, nor developed any aspect of my teaching. Real professional development focuses on the needs of specific teachers, or groups of teachers. As a corps member advisor (CMA) at the Atlanta summer institute, it was my job to figure out what improvements were key to my corps members increasing the student achievement in their classroom. The professional development was focused, direct, and intensive. It included watching videos of their own teaching, discussing challenging students, developing better student engagement tactics, and intensive work around planning. If we want to improve education schools and school systems must stop wasting time and money on professional development that does not focus on student achievement.

6. A great teacher is a reflective teacher 

One of the most important skills for teachers and school leaders to learn is also the most difficult, that is the skill of being reflective. Being reflective means looking at the data, a topic I address later in this article, and thinking about why students are performing the way they are. Unfortunately, in my experience teachers are asked to do so many things completely unrelated to student achievement, that little time is left for reflection. Teachers must be encouraged and given time to reflect on their teaching, and even more so on how their teaching impacts their students.

5. Leadership is about relationships

Given the cheating scandal that my former school district is still digging themselves out from under, it is no surprise that I experienced a lack or poor leadership in schools and school systems. In my experience, most school leaders lack good relationship building skills. As a CMA, Teach For America provided explicit and intensive instructions on how to manage adults. Once I began to put these skills into practice, it became apparent to me that the hardest part of managing adults is building the kinds of relationships that give you the ability to make tough decisions. Principals that build great relationships with their teachers are more successful, in the same way that teachers that build great relationships with their students have higher student achievement.

4. Backwards Planning 

Every Teach For America corps members is drilled in the concept of backwards planning, the idea of setting a big goal and working backwards to the beginning to figure out how to get their students to meet the goal. As a classroom teacher, it was clear that beyond meeting adequately yearly progress (AYP) targets set forth by No Child Left Behind legislation, the schools had no real goals for student achievement. Even more, assuming that AYP targets are an adequate indicator of student achievement, there was no real planning to get to that goal throughout the year. If we want to improve education, schools and school systems need to learn how to backwards plan from meaningful goals.

3. If it’s not working change it

We continue to do education the same way, year after year. We still have an agrarian school calendar in most places, giving students three months to forget the information they learned the previous year. We continue to waste time and money on ineffective professional development. We continue to hire and maintain ineffective school leaders. One of the first things that every TFA corps members learns in their first few weeks of training is that sometimes what you’re doing doesn’t work, when that happens, change something. School systems that are reluctant to change, to try new things, will continue to get the same failing results.

2. Data is a tool for improvement, not a weapon for destruction 

 As more and more states push pay for performance teacher pay programs, it is important that the use of student achievement data be used to focus on improvement not harming educators. TFA trains corps members and staff to look at data as a way of improving current practices, not as a way of disciplining important stakeholders. Furthermore, data is not limited to grades and student test performance, but must also include information about student engagement and student challenge.

1. Great teachers are made, not born

 This mantra is the essence of TFA institute training. Every person brings a unique set of skills to the classroom and those skills can be molded into a great classroom teacher. It takes a lot of hard work, commitment, and dedication to become a great teacher, but no one is exempt from accomplishing this challenge. For schools and school systems, this means developing individual teachers into their own unique version of a successful teacher and retraining teachers who are under-performing. 

I am not suggesting that these nine items are the silver bullet for our national education crisis, but I am suggesting that implementing these nine ideas is a way for every school to begin improving immediately.

Photo Credit: peteselfchoose

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Edward Williams

Edward Williams is currently a 3L at the Georgetown University Law Center. He is a 2009 Teach For America Atlanta Corps Member. He graduated from Howard University in 2009 with a BBA in International Business and Finance with honors. He has interned at JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch in their investment banking/sales and trading divisions, and was a 2010 Teach For America Policy and Advocacy Leadership (PALI) Fellow at the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, DC. Edward is originally from Savannah, GA.

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