deepening the dialogue

Schools That Treat Teachers Like Professionals

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, are corresponding about school policyRead their entire exchange.


Even though I won’t use this post to react to all the ideas you listed in regards to “what makes education in Finland that good,” please keep the lists coming!

If there is a dominant theme that runs through your list, it seems to be that teachers in Finland are truly valued and respected — that the profession on teaching is truly that — professional. I know I don’t need to go into the myriad ways that is not true in America, especially right now.

Moving the American education system, and the larger society in which it exists, to a place where teaching is truly a profession will require more than just changing the system; it will require systemic change.

But as school leaders at autonomous schools we need not wait for larger change. So I am going to throw my own list at you that describes efforts to value teachers at our new network of schools in Denver.

  1. It’s hard to become a SOAR teacher. We have a competitive, extensive, and intensive selection process for new teachers. Entry into our community isn’t easy.
  2. Teachers are held to high expectations. In education we often talk about the importance of high expectations for students. We also must have high expectations for teachers. Our teachers know that great things are expected of them.
  3. Accountability must support the culture of high expectations. And I don’t mean the student growth-data type of accountability that is coming into vogue. It’s about accountability to the work, to each other, to the craft of teaching. Let’s put it this way — at SOAR you need to grow, or you need to go.
  4. Growth can’t be expected without support, so we invest heavily in our teachers’ development. We allocate significant financial resources as well as time and energy to the professional development of our staff. Our teacher education is individualized (no one goes to a workshop that they could give themselves with their eyes closed as happens so often with teacher development). And we bring in experts to work with teachers — not just the teacher in the school down the road that may or may not know just a little more than they do. Nothing is more demoralizing and draining for a teacher than being expected to go to same old training.
  5. Teachers must have professional knowledge and expertise. Teachers at our school are expected to constantly refine their craft.
  6. Teachers have lots of responsibility. While we give teachers a ton of support and direction in planning their instruction, there is very little in the way of packaged or scripted curriculums in our schools. Teachers must think for themselves, put in the time to develop appropriate plans, and then revise them as necessary.
  7. We give our teachers what they need to do their job. Our teachers don’t have to waste their time on things that shouldn’t be their responsibility —  like making sure there are enough instructional supplies, appropriate furniture, and resources for students and parents. That’s the job of school administration, not teachers. For example, every teacher in our school has come to us at some point this year for additional books that they felt were necessary to deliver quality instruction. No request was denied — in fact, teachers are often given the school credit card and sent to the bookstore to get what they need.
  8. Our school leaders are master teachers. Leadership and management expertise are not enough to become a leader in our schools. Even though we now have different responsibilities within the school, we see ourselves first and foremost as teachers. Therefore, it’s natural for us to understand and respect the work of teachers.
  9. Our teachers become leaders within our schools. Next year two of our teachers will be part of our SOAR Leadership Development Program — our in-house approach to developing and training exceptional teachers to be school leaders.

Notably absent from the list above is teacher compensation. I won’t pretend that we pay our teachers anywhere near enough. Our salary schedule is pretty much the same as Denver Public Schools. In the 2011-2012 school year, schools in Colorado will have to function on about $6,500 per student. This is unconscionable, but that’s for another blog post …

Would love to hear what you are doing at your school to further the profession of teaching.

Take care,

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