Future of Teaching

Panel: What it means to be a ‘quality educator’ has changed in the 21st century

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Teacher Geoff Davis (left) and Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey (right) listen to Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

Geoff Davis teaches English and math to fifth and sixth graders at Indianapolis Public School 56.

He also teaches them to play the ukulele.

Why the ukulele?

On Tuesday Davis told a gathering of educators and others at IUPUI that he knows the 45 minutes his students spend playing the ukulele gets some of them through the day.

“It doesn’t sound terribly relevant but it gives kids a reason to come to school,” he said. “I know a boy who is smart, but resentful and difficult. He taught himself the chords I have up on the wall. Then I started to teach him to play the ukulele. Now I can talk to him about anything.”

He’s not the only one, Davis said.

Davis was part of a panel Tuesday that addressed about 40 educators as part of the university’s annual Cohen Lecture.

The Cohen Lecture series began in 2014 to honor Michael Cohen, a retired professor in science education who taught at the school of education from 1968 to 2003 and authored an elementary school textbook called “Discover Science.”

Along with Davis, the panel included Tiffany Kyser of the Great Lakes Equity Center, Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey, city of Indianapolis Education Director Ahmed Young, and Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

The conversation grappled with the complex challenges of the 21st century classroom, such as how to ensure equal treatment for students from all backgrounds, how to connect with students’ families and even how to define a quality educator.

Kyser, who earned a doctorate at IUPUI and now works for a U.S. Department of Education regional center that supports equity training around race, gender, national origin in Indiana and five other states said her organization has a different definition of what makes a high quality educator.

Kyser described a traditional definition of a quality educator as one who has credentials, good evaluations and produces good test scores. The center instead suggests a high quality educator views students’ cultural backgrounds as assets, works to empower them and fosters not just academic learning, but also social and emotional growth.

No matter how you define it, quality teaching is too rare in many schools, Kyser said.

“We have to be very overt in acknowledging not all students have had the benefit of how that local community defines as a high quality educator,” she said.

Young, who oversees more than 30 charter schools sponsored by Mayor Joe Hogsett, said his definition of a quality educator might surprise some people because it is not based on credentials or test scores.

“For me it’s someone who is able to inspire, lead, educate and foster a sense of confidence and efficacy in a child that brings out their innate gifts,” he said. “If they are able to bring that out, that is a teacher. I think we have become beholden to these very confined definitions of what at teacher is.”

Ivey, an IPS parent, said quality teaching is affected by the mandates laid on teachers’ shoulders. She said she sees teachers who are uncomfortable with requirements that they focus on specific skills with the sole goal of boosting test scores.

Education leaders, she said, have not listened to the teachers, to the parents or to students. For example, her son told her he didn’t like school anymore after recess was eliminated.

“Students were speaking out, but we labeled it as acting out,” she said. “The truth is they are being used. It’s a ‘disorder’ if they aren’t sitting quietly all day.”

Hughes said test scores correlate so strongly with a student’s family wealth that she is not sure how much is learned from those results, even if students succeed on those measures.

“I’d want to think about folks being ‘humanity ready,’” she said. “We talk about people being ‘college ready’ but that just means being able to perform well the first year in college. If we think about ‘humanity ready’, that is what ‘does it mean to be truly educated and really thoughtful?’”

Davis praised his school for its healthy approach to teaching, which allows him to take risks, like teaching ukulele. But he’s felt the pressure to abandon creative teaching methods in the past.

“High stakes testing has completely changed what occurs in the classroom and it hasn’t been good,” he said. “It breaks instruction down into tiny skill bytes. I had to do it — 10 or 15 minutes skill lessons without any depth, discussion, connectedness or relevance.”

It’s a frustrating way to teach, Davis said.

That’s not how we use information or share information,” he said. “And it’s so time consuming.”


hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.