First Person

Success Academy teachers don’t plan their lessons, and other teachers shouldn’t either

I have taught English at the same school in the city’s public school system for the last six years. I interviewed for a teaching position with Success Academy this summer. While I didn’t accept the offer, seeing the charter network’s approach to curriculum made me think about what it would look like if my school—and others—tried its approach.

At Success, teachers do not spend time crafting the plans and materials for every class—a core expectation of teachers at most schools. When this was first explained, I couldn’t help checking that I’d heard correctly: “So you’re saying teachers don’t lesson plan?” My interviewer’s response was prompt and confident: “Lesson plan? Our teachers don’t have time for lesson planning.”

I was stunned, but I shouldn’t have been. They realized it worked better to dedicate a team of qualified people to developing lessons, who give the lessons to teachers with the expectation that they will be modified. (My interviewer even emphasized the poor results of teachers who simply delivered the lessons without taking ownership of them.)

In short, Success sees the foolishness of having teachers, on a daily basis, reinventing the wheel when there are people within the school who understand how things should work. It’s time traditional public schools admit the same.

I certainly understand the resistance that many teachers feel at the idea of being given lessons. They understandably fear being “forced” to teach lessons that are uninspiring or poorly planned. Many resist using someone else’s lessons out of fear the lessons won’t cohere with the expectations of their school or with the needs of their students (or following experiences with pre-packaged curriculum materials that failed to do so).

It’s also rare to see lessons that are comprehensive enough to be useful. For example, it is easy to find teaching guides for particular novels or plays, but quite rare to find actual lessons. It is also hard to find assessments—and I don’t mean a multiple-choice test or a description of a project. I mean the handout describing the assessment, the assessment’s rubric, the graphic organizers that break down steps, and a completed sample assessment. Teachers have a lot of well-founded doubts about how useful and complete someone else’s lessons are going to be.

Perhaps most of all, teachers don’t want lessons based on someone else’s passions. As an English teacher, I know how difficult it can be to teach a text that I don’t love.

But at the end of the day, when I think of all the time I spend creating and modifying lessons, I know I would give up lesson planning if I could. In fact, I get nearly giddy at the thought of having more time for the other demands (and joys) of my profession: talking to students, giving students feedback (both so time-consuming and so important, particularly at the high-school level), communicating with parents, organizing and leading clubs. With so much time no longer devoted to planning, I could also focus on the delivery of lessons—on becoming a master presenter and facilitator.

Of course, I wouldn’t give up my planning for just any old lessons. They would have to be

  • Developed by teachers or former teachers from the school
  • Tested and found to be successful with similar populations of students
  • Common-Core aligned
  • Easy to follow and detailed
  • Challenging, engaging and differentiated for students with different needs when necessary
  • Student-centered, with opportunities for students to take ownership of their own learning
  • Comprehensive, with supplements like accompanying handouts and rubrics included (ideally in modifiable, digital form)

In other words, what each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.

I could have so much more confidence in lessons developed by a team of people who know my school, rather than just by me, myself and I. I don’t mean to say my own lessons are terrible. Some are very strong, but—let’s be honest—some were made in a terrible, anxious rush. If I taught from a team-made curriculum, there would be no need for lessons made the day before (or, dare I admit it, the day of) a class. I would have quality lessons every day.

Additionally, I would have a clear road map. I would know today what I would be teaching in three weeks—not just that we’ll be finishing “The Crucible,” but that we’ll be focusing on Scene X and doing a Socratic seminar on Y. I could rest assured that by the end of the year, my students will have had repeated practice with all the standards.

It is true that such a team would be costly, both in terms of money and time. The team would need to be made up of teachers with reduced teaching loads or teachers who are focused solely on curriculum, not the outgrowth of one more meeting in some teachers’ already over-filled days. I can think someone who would be perfect for this position: A phenomenal teacher who relishes planning, but often finds herself frustrated in the classroom. Her lessons and projects are complex, creative, and well thought-out. Eventually, a team made up of people like her would need to spend less time creating and could spend more time tweaking.

The new union contract already mandates more time for professional development than ever before. Why not use this time for curriculum teams to work? (Again, the key would be not staffing them with teachers who already have full teaching loads.) A school like mine could start small, with one team focused on just one subject or grade level.

It is clear to me that the achievement of charter schools like the Success Academy schools is in large part due to their recognition of the importance of letting people do the things at which they are best. Let’s follow their example. Let’s free more teachers from the burden of planning, and see what happens when they can focus on their most important job: teaching and connecting with students.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.