First Person

Are our schools learning organizations?

Is your school a learning organization? What a silly question, we’re a school for crying out loud. We teach, our students learn, hence we are a learning organization. But students are not the only agents of learning in schools. We forget that teachers need to grow and learn as well, just as it is in any profession.

This might explain why schools and teachers are constantly inundated with initiatives from outside of their school organization. Most of the initiatives confronting schools, like Common Core Academic Standards, Standards-Based Grading, and Professional Learning Communities are well-researched and grounded in strong theory. Yet, for the most part, these initiatives came from outside of the school, with little if any support from educators. Why? It’s because most schools are not learning organizations.

In the 1990’s Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline, in which he argued that organizations are continually faced with shifting technology, customer preferences, and intensifying competition. To combat this shifting scenario, organizations need more than a clear vision and strong leadership. They need to be a learning organization. Learning organizations garnered much attention within the private sector, but not as much within the public school arena. If schools were set up as true learning organizations we would have employees (educators) who were skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. Knowledge that would transform our schools into true learning organizations and promote high academic achievement.

In their article “Is Yours a Learning Organization” (Harvard Business Review), authors Gravin, Edmondson, and Gino, offer up a quick assessment tool to see where your company (school) stands as an organization that “fosters knowledge sharing, idea development, learning from mistakes, and holistic thinking.” They also offer three building blocks to a learning organization: 1) A supportive learning environment, 2) concrete learning processes and practices, and 3) leadership that reinforce learning. While the tool was set up for businesses all you need to do to apply it to schools is replace unit (as in a company unit) with school, and manager with principal.

Psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas and time for reflection make up the first building block. We need our schools to be safe places for teachers to engage in collaborative thinking that allows for constructive conflict. Schools where the culture demands tight compliance to edicts from on high, without debate, are not safe. When people are overstressed and do not have the time to reflect they become “less able to diagnose problems and learn from their experiences. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of the [school’s] processes.” When is the last time you saw a teacher with the opportunity, during the school year, to do this?

Building block two focusses on the processes by which organizations generate, collect, interpret, and disseminate information. For educators this entails the social science practice of action research. It promotes experimentation to develop new strategies, time to gather data and analyze the results, as well as opportunities to educate and train their colleagues. For educators time is the key resource necessary to complete this work. Collaboration among educators takes dedicated time away from the act of teaching and funnels it into strategic time spent working with colleagues. We already know that the top international schools’ teachers spend less time “on stage” with students, about 30% less, than do American teachers. If this was taking place in our schools we would see a shift from top-down, fix-it, and one-size-fits-all professional development to a more growth-driven, inquiry-based, collaborative, and tailor-made type of professional development.

The third building block advocated by the authors, focusses on building leadership that reinforces learning. Principals, who invite input from others, recognize their own limitations with regards to knowledge, information, and expertise, who provide time, resources, and venues for identifying problems and recognizing challenges encourage teachers to learn. Teachers in this environment feel empowered to offer new ideas and options. This type of learning environment requires a leader who is comfortable and even encourages professional discourse that is not seen in most schools today.

We know that teachers enter the profession needing time and space to learn. Regardless of what teacher preparation program a teacher comes from, there is no way for that new teacher to have the necessary skills to be successful on day one. We also know that the practice of teaching is not a fixed skill. Teaching, like all professions, relies on a workforce that is adept at making the necessary changes to fit a changing society and its students. In other words, we need a teaching profession that learns as it engages in its daily practice, a profession that demands precision in what it does, while at the same time looking for new ways to innovate and respond to a shifting and changing student body. It is time for us to look at schools as places of learning for students and educators.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk