Follow-Up: Committing to Engagement
David B. Cohen
In my last post, I offered four suggestions for teacher engagement that I believe would improve schools and learning and at the same time inform public perceptions of teachers. If you're inclined to boost your engagement now but you're unsure of where to start, here is a short follow-up list of engagement activities that I think are manageable, motivating, and productive.
- Invite guest speakers and visitors to your class. Over the years, my students have had visits and Skype conferences with a few authors, a publisher, a university professor, a physician, a social worker, a retired dentist, other educators, and Holocaust survivors. These talks help my students see different points of view relating to our curriculum, help me assess students' listening skills, and have the added benefit of letting community members see what's happening in schools.
- Put on an event with students in charge. I've organized two community book discussions in the past three years, where students assigned reading to adults in their lives, and then we gathered to discuss the book and related issues in an evening event. Both times, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. Adults who are not used to dealing with teens often underestimate student potential to teach and lead. Students underestimate themselves and the level of adult interest in teens' opinions and scholarship. Another example worth studying is this teach-in conducted in Memphis by students learning in conjunction with Facing History and Ourselves.
- Become your own publicist. I borrowed that metaphor from my friend and colleague Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and she offers some specific steps you can take to help people see the teaching profession at its best. I understand that publicity does not come easily to many teachers, who might feel concern about the appearance of self-aggrandizement. In that case, try to keep the focus on school and students. Overcoming that reluctance is a positive contribution you can make to your own developmentand our profession. It's an opportunity to model for students how we push ourselves to take some risks and stretch beyond our comfort zones.
- Jump on the community bandwagon. Look around your community and see where there are opportunities to connect. Is there a community center already offering some kind of engagement opportunities relating to youth and education? Is your local library organizing events that promote literacy or civic engagement? Is there a theater group or performing-arts center looking for partnerships or collaboration with students and teachers? You don't have to invent a program from scratch. As a bonus, these programs may have their own publicity strategies and staff. In that case, you have a shared interest in showing how community groups and great teachers are bringing engaging and relevant educational experiences to students.
- Make personal connections with policymakers. Since most education policy details are worked out at the state and district levels, it's important to know your elected officials. Not just know who they are, but know them or their staff members personally. The more local the politics, the more necessary it is for the elected official to be accessible to the public. I've met my state legislators at town hall meetings and "sidewalk" office hours. School board members should be even more accessible. Look for them at school events, or better yet, invite them to your school. If having a board member in your classroom seems intimidating, start out with visits that occur on neutral ground. Offer legislators and school board members the gift of your time and expertise in the future, and follow up on meetings with emails. Once you establish a relationship, you might be surprised to find that these officials will contact you as future issues arise.
- Take your pick from Larry Ferlazzo's suggestions on parent engagement. The man literally wrote the book on parent engagement, and has tons of great advice on his blog sites. Start with this list and pick out something you don't do yet that that addresses the specific needs of your students and their families.
Whatever avenue you choose, I hope you're motivated to commit yourself to our collective efforts to strengthen the teaching profession, through these or other engagement strategies.
David B. Cohen is the associate director of Accomplished California Teachers and a National Board-certified English teacher at Palo Alto High School in California