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What's Right With Our Schools?

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today's post is from Justin Minkel, a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher at Jones Elementary in Northwest Arkansas, the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, a 2006 Milken Educator, and the author of the forthcoming children's chapter book Clubhouse Clash.

President Clinton once said, "There is nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what is right with America." The same is true of our nation's schools.

One of the most devastating legacies of No Child Left Behind has been the tendency to see children as a checklist of deficits while ignoring their strengths, interests, and gifts. Many people have come to see teachers the same way. Administrators have been encouraged to focus on where their school or district faculty is falling short, rather than focusing on what skills these teachers could hone and share.

What if every school, district, and state began with its strengths instead of its weaknesses? What if we used what is right with our schools to cure what is wrong?

In my 3rd grade classroom, I identify class writing experts who are exceptionally good at certain elements of the craft or mechanics of writing. If a child is struggling to describe the setting of her story, I pair her with a student who excels at description. If a child has trouble figuring out where to put periods, an eight-year old expert in punctuation can often explain it better than I can.

Every student in the class is an expert in something, and every student sets goals for areas where she can improve. My 3rd graders use their collective strengths to address their needs.

So what does it look like to map assets, not just deficits, with a school staff? Part of it is professional development that looks within.

At our school, every teacher fills out a "wish list" of techniques and colleagues we want to observe throughout the year. When I want to get better at integrating technology with productive group work, I go down the hall to watch an outstanding 4th grade teacher, and I talk with her afterwards about what I observed. When a 2nd grade teacher wants to get better at supporting English Learners in Writer's Workshop, she comes down to the 3rd grade wing to observe my class.

As a result of this asset-based professional development, my school defies conventional wisdom in two ways. First, with a student population of 99% high-poverty students and 85% English Learners, we have been an achieving school for the past three years--without resorting to the excessive test prep that often crowds out more important 21st century skills.

Our staff also contradicts the idea that you need to fire bad teachers or hire better teachers to turn a school around. The teaching at our school has improved dramatically over the past ten years, but we did it primarily by helping the teachers we already had become better. Ten years ago, student work largely consisted of "color the cat" math fact worksheets and scripted writing programs with sentences copied from the board. Now you see mathematical conjectures used to solve multi-digit multiplication problems, along with compelling essays and stories that reflect each student's voice.

The teachers are the same. The teaching is vastly improved.

It always seems to take our profession about a decade to realize that what's good for kids is also good for grown-ups. We realized a long time ago that students need differentiated instruction according to their skills, interests, and modes of learning, yet professional development continued for years to be "one binder fits all," whether you were a 1st year art teacher or a librarian with 20 years under your belt.

The same thing has happened with 21st century skills. We know now that students need to collaborate, innovate, come up with solutions to real-world problems, and fuse technology with creativity. We are slower to realize the obvious: Teachers need these same opportunities.

We need to collaborate by sharing best practices and observing one another. We need to innovate by engaging in Action Research focused on the link between instruction and our students' needs, the way high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore do. We need to work with administrators to shape school and district policies, not just implement them. And we need to fuse our professional strengths with technology through digital collaboration and mentoring.

A 1st grade special ed teacher working with Mexican-American students in California can mentor a new teacher in Arkansas who teaches students with similar needs, cultures, and linguistic backgrounds. A professional learning community can involve high school teachers in Florida, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, who observe each other teaching in order to improve at their craft.

The most meaningful collaboration I have experienced has come through the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). I was going through National Board Certification at the same time as the 2010 Alaska Teacher of the Year, and he posted videos of his teaching in order to get feedback from me and several other teachers in the network, as well as colleagues at his school. He teaches high school math, I teach 3rd grade, but I learned something from each video he posted and every conversation we had.

Our educational system has plenty of professional development to help new teachers become competent, but we have far less to help competent teachers become excellent. The best teachers I know tend to focus on individual student growth and goal-setting, rather than an arbitrary line marked "proficiency." These teachers approach their own professional development the same way.

They don't worry so much about whether they're "competent," "highly skilled," or "master teachers." Instead, they do three critical things. They reflect on what they do well, then share those skills with the other teachers in their grade, school, district, and beyond. They reflect on areas where they need to improve, then seek out colleagues and mentors to help them get better. And they realize that even the most highly skilled teachers in America are never done improving at this complex craft we have the honor to practice.

We are all works in progress.

--Justin Minkel

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