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Build Capacity to Help Teachers Swim

Carl Finer

Before I started my first real teaching job, I asked if I could go observe someone at my new school who might serve as a model for my practice. I was directed to the summer school classroom of one of the "expert" literacy coaches. As I slid unobtrusively into the back, I noticed that all the kids were drawing. Leaning closer, a student told me they had been instructed to draw the teacher's pet chinchilla. There was no discernable reading or writing assignment along with it. In the midst of all the drawing, the teacher answered her cell phone.     

If I asked my current principal who to go observe today, I'd have a very different experience. I'd enter that conversation knowing exactly what I was having trouble with, and the principal would direct me to an exemplar teacher that matched my needs. And that wouldn't be guided by guesswork, but by a rubric of teacher practices that had been developed jointly by teachers and administrators, on time paid for with grant dollars. 

We're reaching a place where research shows the preeminent impact good teachers can have, and that good teaching can be defined and identified by more than anecdotal evidence. And we're reaching some common ground on what we want student learning to look like as well. 

Unsurprisingly, however, reaching and then staying at this high level of performance is incredibly difficult. Teaching is really hard, especially when working with more disadvantaged populations. And the earnest, diligent teachers I work with tell me they are drowning. 

So where should foundations be focusing their efforts now that would make a genuine difference with teachers and students? Here's my advice:

1) Teach them to swim. It's one thing to define good teaching, and another to coach someone to reach it and sustain it. Grant-makers can support research on what really are the most effective models for coaching teachers, both in pre-service and while on the job, and drive the upfront work to set up these systems and leaders.

2) Throw a lifeline.  Even a strong swimmer eventually reaches exhaustion. Teachers need the structured collaborative time in learning communities to meet the newly defined demands of the job.  Grant-makers can set the impetus and build the will for this by benchmarking the time and structures it actually takes to meet the desired level of performance. Then, funders can seed projects that build this into the school day, including necessary training, resources, and networks, and the means to evaluate and adjust these projects based on their impact on student learning, teacher growth, and teacher retention.   

Students deserve social and emotional supports, too, which will also relieve some of the burden from teachers. Much attention has recently been placed on the teaching non-cognitive skills as critical factors to success, which I consider a huge missing piece of the academic puzzle.  And reaching beyond this, especially teaching in a middle school, I've seen the enormous difference counselors can make on building the capacity of my students to learn and me to teach. I've had difficult classes completely turn around after our gifted counselor started meeting with a "mean girls club," working with students going through trauma at home, or just helping students resolve conflicts in their relationships. Education-related foundations need to see investments in the work of school counselors and psychologists as directly linked to investments in teacher effectiveness and retention.  

 3)  Redesign the pool:  A teacher's day will have to look different throughout their career to sustain high levels of practice. With this in mind, we should consider adding to the teacher's pool a shallow end, a ledge to rest on, a waterslide or diving board.  Grant-makers should invest in pilots of different teaching models that allow new teachers to have reduced teaching loads or to regularly co-plan and teach a lesson with an experienced teacher, for experienced teachers to challenge themselves without leaving the classroom entirely, and for everyone to have the flexibility to step back (like  through job shares) at key moments in their lives.  And everyone will need differentiated professional development, an area ripe for grant-funded innovation. 

Too many teachers I talk to, at all places in their career and in a variety of school settings, tell me they are thinking about leaving the pool altogether. 

Capacity lags behind the newly defined goals for the teaching profession. The focused support for building this in a strategic, sustainable way is the next step for educational philanthropy.     

Carl Finer has taught in South Los Angeles for ten years, and currently teaches English and journalism at Animo Jefferson Charter Middle School. He is a UCLA Writing Project fellow and has served on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Teachers Advisory Panel.

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