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The rainbow wheel of doom was circling at a slow speed on my computer screen. As I waited for an automated report to assemble itself into the format I had requested, I felt increasingly irritated:
“Why is this taking so long? This computer is so slow!”
And even after the rainbow wheel disappeared:
“How come this report doesn’t provide all the data I need in one place?!?”
Then, I glanced at the message on my new coffee mug:
“Breathe in. Breath Out.”
With a deep exhalation, I tried to remember when I was first introduced to the magic of the data report I was now so impatiently awaiting. I recalled my amazement that in an instant, I was provided with a long list of up-to-date facts about individual applicants that I could filter and sort in endless ways. I had been delighted that I had easy and timely access to thousands of records, and that I could display an overview of our application process with a few quick strokes of the keyboard. Breathtaking, impressive, and so efficient!
As I glanced again at my coffee mug, I reflected on the contrast between that initial sense of astonishment and my current sense of annoyance and frustration. I considered how remarkable it truly is that so many dimensions of empirical knowledge about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni can be entered in and drawn out from a single location in cyberspace. How had I lost that sense of appreciation? When did I stop marveling at the wonder of technological efficiency and start grumbling about how slow and inadequate these tools are in living up to my need for data?
I suppose the answer lies in our collective expectations about technological tools. Given the astounding advancements in computing capabilities that most of us in higher education administration have experienced over the past few decades, we assume that our computers will continue to gain speed and capacity as we create the need for ever-more elaborate data presentations. We expect quick and reliable answers to endless questions posed by those from inside as well as outside the College. And I think we have grown to rely on these tools as extensions of ourselves, of our own capabilities: any struggles with technology may be perceived as a weakness in administrative abilities.
In a final exhalation, I reminded myself that administrators only one generation before me had managed to oversee admissions processes and track student enrollment without the aid of any computers. Indeed, that is undoubtedly still the case in many places in the world. I chuckled as a memorable image from a recent trip to India came to mind.
While taking an unofficial walking tour of the University of Rajasthan, our guide, Acharya, led us through a central administrative building. In office after office, we saw enormous stacks of paper. There were stacks on shelves and stacks on desks; there were stacks inside cabinets; there were whole rooms that appeared to be devoted to storing stacks of paper. As a fairly recent college graduate, Acharya explained that if he requested his records, a clerk would have to manually search through stacks of papers like these. It might take months to get a single copy of a required document. His explanation revealed no sense of frustration or outrage, just calm acceptance.
So I put a copy of that photograph on my desk, next to my coffee mug. When the rainbow wheel next appears on my computer screen, I intend to recalibrate my response. I will imagine that someone is moving from one office to another, combing through innumerable stacks of paper, and assembling an astonishing array of data for my use. I will remember that others perform similar tasks with much less powerful tools. I will be grateful for the remarkable technology that allows me to complete complex tasks on a daily basis.
And I will graciously accept the gift of a multicolored reminder to simply breathe while I wait.
Zubin is a student in Teachers for Tomorrow’s Schools. For two different classes, Zubin was required to select a student (ELD student preferred, but not required) from the classroom where he student-teaches. Zubin wrote the piece below in response to case studies he did in those classes. He chose the topic because he had not seen anyone mention anything on it and wanted others to be aware of the differences between the terms.
Some definitions (from www.pps.k12.or.us/files/curriculum/ESL_Terminology.doc):
ELL/ EL- English Language Learners/ English Learners
ELD- English Language Development is a system of instruction focused on teaching ELLs to use English proficiently to communicate for various purposes in four language domains – speaking, listening, reading, and writing. ELD is also a class period that all students placed in the ESL Program are assigned. It has its own curriculum and state standards.
ELP- English Language Proficiency are levels of English language learners’ fluency based on their stage of language acquisition and characterized by specific student language behaviors in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The levels are determined by State ELPA Test. Level 1 is Beginner. Level 2 is Early-Intermediate. Level 3 is Intermediate. Level 4 is Early- Advanced. Level 5 is Advanced.
ELPA- English Language Proficiency Assessment is the annual state exam for assessing English learners’ growth in English proficiency
ESL- English as a Second Language
To many people, the phrases “ESL”, “EL”, “ELL”, and “ELD” are the same thing. However, to me, they are different. I am an ESL student, and “ESL” is the only one among the four definitions listed above that I’d love to be identified as. Being an ESL student implies that I can speak another language and may have language barrier. On the other hand, being an EL, ELL, or ELD basically means one has language barrier.
For my case studies on language, I found two students whose home languages are not English. However, they both refused to participate. I felt that they both were anxious about English being their second language. One student even lied. He told me that he was born in Berkeley, and he only speaks English at home. I mentioned this to my roommate, who is also an ESL student, and he said that when he was in school, he didn’t want people know that he was in the ELD program because he was worried people would look down on him. When I asked him if he wanted to be identified as an ESL student, he said that would be better for him because he would have the privilege of speaking two languages.
I understand that some other people don’t want to be identified with any of the four terms above. However, we, as educators, should affirm students’ identities and encourage them be proud.
One day while I was talking to my case study student, she reminded me that teachers often tell ELD students to write the definitions in their native languages. I followed this method myself when I was in school and wrote the Chinese translation of the words I didn’t know. I used to read each article at least three times. The first time reading the article, I basically just looked for the words I didn’t understand and wrote down the definition. The second time reading the article, I just tried to make sense of the article. If I found any definition didn’t make sense, I would go back to the dictionary and find an alternative. The third time reading the article, I was trying to understand it. My reading speed was slow. I spent much more time than other students to understand an article. After doing this for a year, I got tired of it and found that it wasn’t very helpful. English is such a complicated language because so many words have more than one meaning. Also, if a word is used in different context, the definition may be different. I then stopped writing the definition for every word that I didn’t know. Instead, I just tried to figure out the meaning through the context. If I still really had no idea what a word meant, then I look it up in the dictionary and choose the one that makes the most sense.
To many ESL students, especially in high school level, math and science are their favorite subjects. Maybe favorite is not very accurate, and I should use easier-to-catch-up-to instead. We come in with some understanding of those subjects. All we need is just to translate them into English and make sense of them.
Math class was very important to me in high school. I built my confidence in speaking and working with native speakers. Even though I didn’t understand much of the language, I did understand the examples or content. When I got home, I just focused on the vocabulary. Eventually, I was able to understand most of the things talked about in class. This approach may be limited to only a small number of individuals, but this definitely works in some cases including my own. I believe that vocabulary instruction is essential to effective math and science instruction. It not only includes teaching math or science specific terms such as “mean” or “percent,” but also includes understanding the difference between the mathematical or scientific definition of a word and other definitions of that word.
How ELL students feel about themselves is directly affected by the education policies put in place for English Language Learners. Education policy makers set strict English language standards and push for ESL students to acquire English language proficiency at a rapid pace. This urgent focus on language acquisition creates anxiety for ELL/ESL students. Are there any influences we, as educators, bring to ELLs? If teachers are not sensitive to or responsive toward ELLs’ cultural identities, ELL students can be pushed further toward the fringes of the classroom until they ultimately withdraw from the learning process. If teachers focus so much energy on mainstreaming ESL students, they will place little or no value on students’ ability to speak two languages. Acknowledging and affirming all students’ cultural identities in the classroom strengthens individuals’ sense of value, and their academic performance in the long run. Teachers who understand and support the cultural norms of diverse learners help create a nurturing environment for those students, and can then encourage those students to feel more comfortable in taking the risks that can lead to so much learning and development. By incorporating the wealth of students’ cultural backgrounds into the curriculum educators can advance the learning of all students, meeting the policy makers’ goals and fulfilling our obligations to all of our students. The question, then remains: how do we build a curriculum that integrates multicultural backgrounds on an ongoing basis, and not just as a one-time multicultural event or activity?
Richard “Pete” Mesa, the founding director of the administrative credential program and former Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership, passed away on January 2 at the age of 84. Pete’s elegant leadership embodied grace and dignity and is seldom found. His many qualities of mind and character magnified his individual virtues. Pete’s courage, energy, high principles and steadfastness; impartial justice and utter trustworthiness; calm in the face of difficulty; thoroughness in deliberation and mastery over his strong passions distinguished him, as all of these qualities harmonized in his character. Students will remember Pete as a rigorous professor and caring mentor, while colleagues will never forget his keen intellect, capacity to listen, and commitment to maintaining a small high quality program. –Diane Ketelle
The San Francisco Chronicle obituary for Pete Mesa can be found here.
In the present day push to make every minute “accountable,” which is synonymous to “billable,” it is becoming increasingly challenging to justify any service that’s considered psychosocial in nature—a service such as Child Life. Child Life Specialists are unique professionals whose primary role is to respond to the developmental, social, and emotional needs of hospitalized children. Child Life Specialists are trained in child development, psychology, education, hospital systems and culture, and psychosocial interventions designed to reduce distress and pain and to promote healing.In 2012 a notable pediatric surgeon stated that each visit with a child life specialist could save his surgical team three to five minutes. “With 10 kids, that’s 50 minutes – that’s another surgery,” he explained.
Like all psychosocial cares in the hospitals, the cost effectiveness of child life services has come under scrutiny by the hospital administrators during an era of hospital mergers, affiliations, and rising health care costs. How do we justify the need for child life services through cost effectiveness? Anecdotal accounts like the one offered by the pediatric surgeon only helps to a certain degree. At a time when administrative decision and policy are driven by evidence-based data, child life needs to find a way to quantify and qualify itself as an essential service in the delivery of quality healthcare for children and families. The discipline of child life, a relatively new profession, needs to continue proving its worth through research.
Research studies translating psychosocial services into saved dollars and cents have been extremely scarce. Yes, there are a few reliable studies such as those in pediatric radiology departments identifying, for example, the potential costs saved by minimizing the need for anesthesia for school age patients undergoing MRIs when they are adequately prepared by a child life specialist. Reality is that the value of psychosocial care is difficult to quantify.
Nevertheless, Child Life must engage in research not only to prove its worth but also to better understand itself as a profession. As a matter of fact, an evidence-based research study is in the planning stages through the National Child Life Council. This will be a 5-year retrospective data analysis of pediatric patient records for children who have (and have not) received child life services as part of their hospitalization to analyze recovery rates and other outcome measures. The goal of this study is to provide critically necessary data related to both the effectiveness of the modality of play and the cost effectiveness of child life services because of their use of play techniques.
At Mills, we are actively looking at how we can engage in Child Life research. We have an obligation to produce quality Child Life Specialists and to contribute to the Child Life field. Stay tuned!
I arrived home one day after class in 2009 and sat in front of my computer to begin my schoolwork as I had done for months on end. In fact, being in the Education Leadership doctoral program at Mills, that was all I did for months—no, I take that back—years!! Like all the other days before this one, I first opened my email longingly, yet not expectantly, to see if there were any messages from anyone anymore. (The first thing I learned in my doctoral program was that I no longer had any more friends outside of school who emailed me—in fact I didn’t really have a life outside of school.) Open-peruse-delete. Open-peruse-delete. Open-peruse-delete. That was my interaction with most of the email that I got those days. And that was my interaction with the email that I received from Teachers College Press. Open-peruse-delete.
What a joke. Yeah right—like Teachers College Press wants me to submit a manuscript. I knew better. I had just presented a workshop on resilience (the subject of my dissertation) at the ASCD annual conference and was so certain that what I received in my email was just a form letter sent to all presenters to see if they wanted to submit a proposal for a manuscript that would possibly be published by Teachers College Press. This is of course what all publishers do after a big conference—right? They mine the total landscape and send queries to all presenters in hopes that a good proposal may present itself. I was not going to get sucked in and spend my time responding. Besides, it also crossed my mind that someone might have even been playing a really bad joke on me—a joke that I was not going to fall for. Yeah right—send the student who is up to her eyeballs in writing a dissertation a query to see if she would be interested in writing a book. That email was now history and I never mentioned it to anyone. I just took care of it by bringing one little finger to one little key. Delete.
Fast forward two months…
Like all the other days before, I got done with school, sat in front of my computer and opened my email before knowing that I was in for a long night working on some chapter of my dissertation. Geesh…not another form email from Teachers College Press. There must have been another conference somewhere and they are mining the crowd—or once again, someone was playing a bad joke on me. Oh well, just open it, read it, and then delete it—I knew the drill. So I opened it, read it, and—oh my God!—went into convulsions! This isn’t verbatim, but the email started something like this:
Dear Dr. Truebridge,
I contacted you earlier to inquire whether you would be interested in submitting a book proposal to Teachers College Press. I understand your work focuses on resilience and we are interested in publishing a book on this subject. I never heard back from you so I am inquiring once again.
…and it was signed by the Executive Acquisitions Editor of Teachers College Press.
Yes, I was now in convulsions that lasted all night into the next day. You can ask Diane Ketelle and she will verify that I am telling you the truth, for I was hyperventilating the next day as I ran hysterically into her office. “Oh my God! Oh my God! I received this email—the first one I deleted—this email—this email—oh my God—it is from Teachers College Press—actually it is the second email I received from them—did I mention I deleted the first one?! Oh my God! Oh my God, and look…the salutation on the email says ‘Dr. Truebridge!’ He thinks I have my doctorate and I am still in the process of getting it—oh my God—how do I respond???”
Now I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that this was not the first time I had run into Diane’s office in a manic hysterical state. Diane was often the one who, when she was not challenging me as a doctoral student, was able to smile her smile, hold my hand, and help me through some tough times. This time was no different. On this day, she held my hand, calmed my nerves, and helped me craft my response to the email that I received from Teachers College Press. That was in 2009. That was also the year when I signed my contract with Teachers College Press. I graduated the doctoral program in 2010. My book, published by Teachers College Press, Resilience Begins with Beliefs: Building on Student Strengths for Success in School, will be out in December 2013. Needless to say, looking back to 2009—finishing a dissertation and beginning a book at the same time—was quite a humbling spin on the “doctoral dance floor.”
*Just a little side note…it has been three years since I have graduated the doctoral program, and I still am getting used to being called “Dr. Truebridge.” However, I am no longer thrown into convulsions and hysterics when I receive an email that begins with that salutation. Oh…and one more thing: I am a lot more careful these day about what emails I delete. That’s no joke.
For information about the book: http://store.tcpress.com/0807754838.shtml
Find it on Facebook: (Please visit and “like”):https://www.facebook.com/pages/Resilience-Begins-with-Beliefs-by-Sara-Truebridge/669217006423284?ref=stream
Tony Smith announced his resignation as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District early this month, news that stunned much of the education community in the Bay Area. Although not without his share of controversy, Tony has done a remarkable job in his five-year tenure as superintendent. He possesses a rare combination of charisma, kindness, and an ability to articulate a powerful vision along with an enthusiasm for listening and learning from others. In a district known for its critique and discord, it is notable that, at this critical moment of leadership transition, there is almost uniform consensus that the next superintendent be someone who can carry forward and implement the bold vision of community schools that Tony and his team have crafted. This moment of transition in Oakland has profound implications for those of us who care deeply about our city’s public schools and it has important and far-reaching implications for other cities around the country.
In recent years, two trends have characterized the urban school district superintendency. First, urban superintendents rarely stay in their positions for more than a few years. Smith was a rare exception to this, especially in Oakland where few superintendents have lasted more than two years. Second, there is a tendency for new superintendents to start anew, with their own bold vision, in order to make their mark. This is nearly always a mistake; this strategy inevitably slows the momentum of progress and the consequent discontinuity often causes disruption in the lives of children, teachers and families.
Oakland needs a new superintendent who will continue the work begun by Smith and his administration. And we need more than that. We need a superintendent who is able to communicate this vision to the wider community, including parents and funders, with the same force and passion that Tony possessed, and we need someone with a deep understanding of teaching and teachers’ central role in successfully implementing this vision. At a time where teachers are increasingly blamed for the failure of urban schools, the next superintendent of Oakland should have a lived knowledge of classroom life and a deep respect for teachers.
The recent move toward hiring CEOs as superintendents to manage large, complex and often distressed fiscal systems and bureaucracies has meant diminished attention to the knowledge of teaching and learning required for this work. To implement the vision Smith has built with the district and community, and to maintain the district’s positive and substantive gains, the next superintendent must have respect and a deep commitment to teachers’ work and a complex understanding of what teaching entails. This vision should include more than knowledge of which tests to use to assess students’ success with the Common Core Curriculum and which evaluation programs to purchase that are developed outside of the district.
The knowledge the next superintendent possesses should be borne from classroom experience in urban schools, it should be honed by successful collaborative work across the various education sectors, and it should be bolstered by a serious understanding of current research and practice. The incoming superintendent needs to do more than commission or read reports on Teacher Quality that are based on current metrics. She or he must work with the schools to develop metrics that reflect their current gaps and needs while displaying their progress towards excellence.
Like many of our nation’s schools, Oakland is plagued by intractable poverty, persistent violence, and diminishing resources. The next superintendent will not be able to address these root causes alone. Yet, with the roadmap laid out by Smith, and with the support of the community, including the teachers and administrators who will implement the plans, the incoming superintendent can transform our schools and make Oakland a model for the nation. A starting place for addressing poverty and violence is to increase educational opportunities for all students. The concept of community schools that reframes learning as connected to the health and well-being of the community begins to build the necessary foundation for change.
Knowledge of teaching and learning is not found solely in books nor is it acquired after just two years in the classroom. Talk to successful teachers who have spent 10 or 20 years in a classroom and you will find a deep understanding of children, communities, curriculum, and knowledge of how to engage the most recalcitrant student in learning that connects to their lives and opens up opportunities. This is not to say that the next superintendent of Oakland must have taught for some minimum number of years. We need in this person both a respect for that knowledge and the willingness to think outside of conventional solutions to address the educational futures of children in our most impoverished school districts—certainly among the most important challenges we face as a country. Our next superintendent must also bring a commitment and ability to work as a partner with the teacher’s unions and understand the importance of building pathways for teacher development and leadership. We need a superintendent who can navigate the deep divide between traditional public and charter schools while opening up a dialogue about the meaning of “public” schools. Our urban districts are failing and we have the knowledge to address that failure through imagination, knowledge and experience. How we select and support our next leaders will make the difference.
Kathy Schultz is professor and dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland. She is the author of the 2009 book, “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.”
This article was previously posted on the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet.
Occasionally, we are lucky enough to meet colleagues or participate in programs that help us to look at familiar problems with new perspective and new insights. I recently had the opportunity to re-examine an issue I’ve considered for many years: How can we help young men of color to succeed in school and thrive in the world beyond school?
As an education funder and philanthropy consultant, I’ve spent the last decade confronting this problem. The statistics are grim and familiar. On a variety of standardized tests, African-American, Latino and Native American males achieve at significantly lower levels than their white and Asian-American peers. Fewer than half of black males graduate from high school on time.
I just attended an urban education study tour sponsored by Grantmakers for Education (GFE), a national association that promotes learning, networking and reflective practice for education funders. These tours allow funders to visit school districts that are facing tremendous challenges and responding with energy and creativity.
Our agenda included a visit to Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School, where we met Chris Chatmon, Director of the Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, and his colleague, Jahi, who leads an after-school manhood development program.
I was inspired by Chris’s commitment to helping young men of color overcome the barriers that inhibit their social development and academic achievement. I was impressed with Jahi’s use of simple homemade drums to teach problem solving, teamwork, pride and discipline. And I was taken with the middle school students who described their own goals with maturity and poise.
Much of what I saw at Edna Brewer was familiar— I’ve met many other inspiring teachers and impressive students. Here’s what was different: In Oakland, the district leadership, beginning with Superintendent Tony Smith, has made the achievement of young men of color a tangible, explicit, measurable goal for the school district. Tony told us that one of his goals is to reduce the proportion of young men of color from Oakland who end up in the adult corrections system by 50 percent in the next decade. He sees efforts to promote manhood, responsibility and good judgment as essential components of the school district’s mission. He’s made it an imperative for the Oakland schools.
Helping young men of color to achieve their full potential is difficult work. It will take more than a few talented educators reaching more than a lucky few students in one program or one school. In Oakland, I saw the vision, commitment and district-level leadership that real change requires.
Founded in 1998, BTW is a woman-owned strategic consulting firm that partners with foundations and nonprofit organizations to improve their effectiveness and inform organizational learning. Their information-based services include evaluation, applied research, and program and organizational strategy development. BTW’s work is guided by their core values—integrity, intelligence and compassion—and their experience extends across diverse contexts, populations and content areas, including education, health, youth engagement, leadership and philanthropy. To find out more about BTW and their services, visit www.btw.informingchange.com
After working for twenty-four years as an elementary school teacher, elementary school principal, school district superintendent and professor, I was afforded the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave. I was excited at the thought of taking time to recharge and seek fresh perspectives on my teaching. As a seasoned traveler whose research and desires have taken me to Japan, France and India, I wanted to work and live in a part of the world I had never been before and about which I knew very little. A Fulbright teaching award seemed like that opportunity. As summer approaches, I want to share a little bit of my sabbatical experience in Armenia hoping that you, also, will find fresh perspectives on teaching and learning during your break.
Not an American tourist destination or vacation spot and isolated from much of the world by language, culture, and closed borders to the west and the east, Armenia is a country the size of the State of Maryland. Surrounded by Iran, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two million people live in the country, and of those one million live in the city of Yerevan. Yerevan was established in 782 BC, 29 years earlier than Rome, and is now Armenia’s capital. Nestled in a semi-circle of hills descending to the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is made up of broad avenues, modest dwellings, offices, shops, honking horns and masses of people. Over run and over run again, Armenia was once a large country covering most of the local region, in its 21st Century formation it has yet to emerge as a real presence in the global village. Modernity has been slow to come to Armenia with its old Soviet power grids, waterlines and phone lines forming the base of Yerevan’s infrastructure. A week with consistent electricity is considered a delight and daily hot water is a luxury.
After flying into a small airport just outside of Yerevan, entering the city in the dark disguised the dusty streets, cratered sidewalks and made it unclear that monuments and buildings there can decay without complete impunity. Yerevan is best understood in the morning when the light glistens off of the many buildings built of pink tufa stone. The tufa stone was the idea of Alexander Tumanyan, an Armenian architect, who created a general plan for Yerevan in 1924. New apartment buildings have jutted up in the city, mostly chalky pink blocks that are neither graceful nor harsh. The Armenian alphabet is Syriac and street signs are written in Armenian and Russian, obtuse for a person who reads, nor speaks either. Since few spoke English, pantomime and laughter were my main languages in shops and restaurants around town.
Yerevan in August was a teeming haze of pollution that sat atop the city as the temperature rose and Mount Ararat towered in the distance. The sky was a faded blue. There I was, people all around, on sidewalks, in the parks, on corners playing chess, and playing with children everywhere. I was struck by the fact that at five foot four inches I was tall and bigger than most men who passed me on the street. Armenians enjoy conversation, hospitality and sitting in summer sidewalk cafes until the early morning hours. I did not fully understand the semi arid continental climate that allowed for hot summers and snowy winters, but the residents had learned to stay outside and enjoy the heat before the cold winter fell.
Time slowed down in Yerevan. No one around me was scurrying or trying to attend to pressing business. Yerevan does not have a commuting culture and days are slow to start. As time passed, I too scurried less and noticed I remembered more – a loaf of bread, the newspaper, and the faces of people passing by. When a friend came to visit from the United States she wanted a cup of coffee at a cafe early in the morning, and was disappointed to find it impossible.
After six weeks of navigating the city, I started teaching at Yerevan State Linguistic University. The university is named for Valery Brusov, a Russian poet and writer, who translated many major works of literature into Armenian. I was assigned to teach in a master’s degree program UNESCO had founded a year prior in educational management and planning, the only program of its kind in the country. The goal of the program is to prepare students to lead elementary, middle or high schools throughout the country. I do comparable work at Mills, where I direct the administrative credential and master’s degree in educational leadership programs, so I felt well qualified to teach students in Armenia aspiring to lead schools.
The university sits on the corner of Tumanyan Street in downtown Yerevan. Surrounded by small shops and markets it is a large, three story, pink building that is in desperate need of repair. The atmosphere inside is more like an American high school than a university. The school enrolls mostly women, because it is socially acceptable for them to study foreign languages. After graduating many become tour guides for the few French, German or Russian tourists or they may work in souvenir shops where their proficiency in languages can be used. Adding to the aura of it being more like a high school than a university, there were constant giggles, clicking high heels and the use of lipstick was ubiquitous.
I taught a course titled, “U.S. Perspectives on School Leadership” to twelve young Armenian women, all less than thirty years old. My students were mystified by the “West” and established their fashion style from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, often wearing extremely high heels, short skirts and very tight pants, convinced that is how “American women” dress. Most of my students had never met an American before and only two of them had traveled outside of Armenia. They would often ask me, “What are your students like in the United States?” They wanted to know how they compared. My students could speak, read and write English and many of them had to advocate for themselves within their families to go to graduate school. Two of my students were married and one had a child. The level of oppression of women is more wide sweeping in Armenia, so managing marriage, motherhood and graduate school in that culture is even more complex than in America, requiring students to leave suddenly to resolve family problems when a parent, or, in particular, a mother-in-law would call. Students were fearful that when they graduated there would be little or no opportunity for them to lead schools that desperately need their talent, intellect and imagination.
My time in Yerevan constituted a successful cultural exchange because it reinforced in me that to live in another culture takes the capacity of respect. Respecting what you do not know about history, culture, language, terrain, bread and consequently requires the capacity for self-respect and dignity. I take away from this experience the knowledge that international teaching exchanges can be transformative when one is willing to examine our culture in contrast to those we visit. One teacher can make a difference when transplanted to the other side of the world if she is open to learning just as much as she will teach.
The current public discussion about education reveals our fundamental lack of trust in teachers and our inability to describe “good” teaching. There are several consequences to these gaps. First, as we have seen in recent battles over teachers’ pay and benefits, teachers are frequently portrayed as either demons (i.e., incompetent, overpaid, and lazy) or saints (i.e., beyond reproach or critique.) The truth lies somewhere in between these labels. Of course, as in every profession, there are incompetent teachers who simply clock in. But there are also countless talented and committed teachers whose work with children is breathtaking. And then there are the many teachers whose teaching falls somewhere in between. The problem is that when this complex reality is painted in a uniformly bad light, the default response is to stop trusting teachers altogether.
Teaching was once one of the most trusted professions; along with doctors, we trusted teachers. With the recent focus on curricula that teach via with scripts that teachers are mandated to read, snapping their fingers at the appropriate places, we have all but eliminated our trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In this context, meaningful teaching is too often replaced by teaching for the tests and deep learning by training in efficient selection of multiple-choice responses.
But there are other stances to take toward teachers. In the summer of 2005, after the South Asian tsunami, I traveled to Aceh, Indonesia with a group of teacher educators to work with the new teachers who were hired as a result of this large scale disaster and to improve teaching across the district. This work continued over four summers. More recently, we continued this project, called “Listening Schools,” with teachers working with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The foundation of our work to improve teaching was trust.
We began with respect for the knowledge teachers brought to their work – knowledge of their students, their classrooms, their schools, and their content. Although we provided new materials and pedagogical methods, our emphasis was not on demonstrating how to teach, but rather on giving teachers tools for sharing their knowledge with each other. We learned that teachers trusted us when we introduced new approaches and knowledge because we began by conveying our respect for their knowledge rather than critiquing their practices. Similarly, good teaching begins by acknowledging the knowledge children bring to the classroom, using their understanding of the world around them as a starting point for learning. Likewise, we began our work with teachers with the assumption that they had a foundational knowledge of their local context and that our work was to teach them new ways to work with and learn from each other, so as to expand that knowledge.
As I have read newspapers and on-line commentary in recent weeks, I have been struck by the lack of trust in teachers at this moment in our history. One article suggested that we place webcams – like nanny cams – in classrooms to watch teachers more closely. Along with other public sector employees, teachers have become a convenient target of taxpayer rage, our demons. As with their congressional representatives, people trust their own children’s teachers, and save their ire for teachers in general. Where did this mistrust come from?
Trust is closely connected to respect and integrity. Trusting one another requires that we place ourselves in a vulnerable position and take risks, knowing that others will support us. Trust is also connected to careful listening and paying enough attention to another to know how and when to respond. That’s also what characterizes strong teaching.
In Aceh and Lebanon, we learned to build trust with the teachers before we began our work together. We talked explicitly about the importance of trust, of their trusting one another, themselves, and our work together. Most of all we listened to them and asked them to listen to each other. We trusted the teachers to know how translate their experiences and the teaching practices we introduced into their own contexts. Beginning with this respect, with deep listening and trust, we worked across cultural and linguistic boundaries to forge new ways to work together and new processes for collaboration.
The results were striking. Teachers were willing to take new risks to try different ways of teaching, opening themselves up to learn from one another. They also engaged in difficult conversations about the challenges they faced in their classrooms. These interactions and discussions are rare in today’s classrooms where teachers often close their doors to their supervisors and colleagues, out of fear that if they admit to any worries or weaknesses, they will lose their job, rather than get help in solving problems.
This distrust is paralyzing. Our challenge is to change the discourse about teachers, replacing distrust with trust, allowing us to understand the complexity of teaching and learning. Only then will we see deep engaged teaching and successful learning in our country’s classrooms.