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Teachers Aren't Failing Schools, and Other Things People Should Be Hearing

This is the fourth of a four-part conversation on how teaching and the media intersect.


Shawna Coppola

"Rotten Apples." "How to Fix America's Schools." "Building Better Teachers." These are just a few of the headlines that, over the past year, have graced the pages (as well as some covers) of our national print media. Lest you think this is a recent phenomenon, check out these headlines from the years 1979, 1980, and 1984, respectively: "Why Teachers Can't Teach." "Help! Teacher Can't Teach." "Why Teachers Fail."

What story has the mass media toldand continues to tellnot only about American education, but about our teachers? If those headlines don't paint a clear enough picture, do a quick Google news search of "teachers," and you'll soon find out: stories abound of teachers leaving the profession in droves, protesting low pay, and sparring with politicians over evaluation systems.

Even many "positive" media accounts of teachers like this one from NPR or this one from The Atlantic focus on male teachers who work in the private or charter school sector, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of teachers in this country are female and nearly 85 percent of all educators teach in a public school.

The problem, some might argue, may be that American teachers are tirelessly overworked and hopelessly embedded within a culture that, quite often, fails to practice what it preaches to its students: lifelong learning, reflection, and civic engagement.

While teachers are not necessarily to blame for this, it is important that we, as the saying goes, "be the change we want to see in the world" by taking advantage of the multitude of opportunities that abound for us to tell our storiesthe real storiesof the difficult yet rewarding work we do of nurturing the development, the engagement, and the curiosity of our future citizens.

This represents a slight paradigm shift for many teachers, as it has been for my colleagues and I at the small, rural K-6 school at which I teach. When I began working here four years ago, morale was low and the overall outlook dismal, with the Common Core State Standards and a barrage of "new and improved" high-stakes assessments attached to the standards lurking over our shoulders.

With the leadership of a new principal and a team of dedicated colleagues who were willing to reflect (a lot) on their practice, we began to focus on the stories we wanted to be able to tell about our students once they left our school at the end of grade six. These stories, which featured our students as the joyful, compassionate, critical thinkers we knew they could be, drove everything we did. It drove our culture, it drove our curriculum, and it drove our own reflection about the kinds of people we were as members of this learning community. And as these stories came to fruition, we knew that if we wanted to make a greater change in education as a whole, we needed to share them.

We started locally by hosting an annual "Student Showcase" which we invited the entire community to attend. This was not a bells-and-whistles dog-and-pony show, but an honest peek into what our students are most proud of in terms of their learning. It was messy and exciting and wonderful. It both exhausted and energized us as we watched our students tell their "learning stories" to their families and to the community with a great sense of pride.

As our realization that the work we were doing was making a huge difference in not only the lives of our students, but of ourselves as well, our confidence grew. Over time, we began inviting educators from other schools, local authors, and even leaders within the field of education to visit. We revamped our website in order to have it better reflect the story we wished to tell about our little school. We began to share brief snippets of stories about student learning—so different from so-called "achievement"through photos, text, and video on social media.

And as our stories spread, our media reach grew wider (and continues to grow each and every day). Our school has been positively mentioned and/or featured in our local paper, on Twitter, and even on Diane Ravitch's blog.

This isn't the result of happenstance, but of a great sense of pride in our workand of decisive, purposeful action. Because we believe that our story is worth telling, we are actively seeking out forums through which to tell it. And while the national media continues to blather on about the education "crisis" and about "saving our schools," we are changing the story, bit by bit. We are being the change we wish to see. You can, too.

Shawna Coppola is a literacy specialist in a K-6 school and has been a public school educator for over 15 years. She is an active member of the educational community on Twitter and can be found online at @shawnacoppola or on her blog, mysocalledliteracylife.com.

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