After teaching for thirty years in Nevada’s schools, I was heartened to read Meredith Smith’s blog last week, “We Can’t Wait.” I envision seeing Nevada in the top ten of national education rankings. I know that we have the expertise needed to see effective learning in all of our schools, but currently we have some deeply-rooted problems in many of our schools - attempts to improve seem to fail before implementation is completed. Some of those problems include:
High numbers of students in each class – I’ve spoken with teachers from China who had 60+ students in their classes in China, yet when they started teaching in Nevada, were overwhelmed with 40 students in a class. Our culture is not the same as China’s – where students learn despite class sizes larger than ours. U.S. teachers with 40 or more students in a class are hard pressed to establish personal connections that engage learners, are hard-pressed to establish connections with parents of their students, and are hard pressed to provide meaningful feedback on their students’ assignments.
Lack of support when implementing new programs – When a new program or strategy is introduced to teachers, experts suggest that time and background knowledge are needed for successful implementation. At the start of many school years, teachers are asked to stop using last year’s “new” programs in order to implement new approaches. -maybe three or four new programs are introduced. Why not tack on a new grading scale and several new policies requiring mountains of paperwork as well? The constant change, coupled with the immediate needs of students can overwhelm even the best of multi-tasking teachers. We can’t expect changes to impact our students until those changes have been given enough time to be effective.
Lack of genuine time for professional learning and collaboration with peers. Teachers often work 12-16 hours days. Yet part of every teacher’s schedule every day should include, on contracted time, opportunities for professional learning and collaboration with other teachers. Principals know this – and while they’d like to provide time and support for genuine reflective conversations with teachers to strengthen student learning, there isn’t enough time in the current school day to allow for this to take place. Teachers compromise by meeting during lunch or meeting during their personal preparation time. An educator can pretty much expect to be “on task” from the instant they arrive at school until they leave…and then pick up their work again after they get home. Teachers can’t be expected to generate improvement in student learning when they don’t have the time to learn themselves.
Lack of professionalism among educators. Every educator is passionate about learning. Every educator wants their students to do their best – but after years of being told what to do and how to do it, questions start working away in our minds. When the decision-making is done by others, it’s hard to “act professionally.” Why maintain expensive memberships with professional organizations? Why go the extra mile when nobody seems to think that teachers don’t know how to teach?
I know that Nevada’s students can be ranked among the top ten in the nation, but, as Meredith stated, teachers can’t wait for others to act on improving our schools. Teachers know best how to teach – and need to be provided with the autonomy to make the decisions that impact student learning. A few suggestions to get classroom teachers started:
Be candid with policy makers and other stakeholders. Invite them to see your classroom as it really is – with the teacher showing preparedness and persevering, despite no room for the students or teacher to move around the class, despite students who express that they’d rather be watching videos and disrupting class than learning. Be vocal about how our students are missing out on learning because of classroom conditions that are beyond a teacher’s control.
Don’t wait to be asked - speak out to administrators regarding the revolving door of instructional programs. Share research about program implementation, volunteer to help make decisions about why new programs are needed. Ask to see classroom and school data that show the results of new programs.
Insist on finding ways to allow for high-quality professional learning at all schools. Administrators can support teacher learning and decision-making by analyzing student data together and then determining what the teachers need to learn and how they will learn. Consult Learning Forward’s website to read what’s working in other schools for effective professional learning.
Despite the challenges, always act professionally so that education will be respected as a profession. Consider National Board Certification, speak with others about your professional learning. Consider ongoing learning even if it doesn’t provide CU’s for advancement on the pay scale. Invite other teachers to step up their game. Design and complete an action research project to determine more effective ways to engage students, to raise reading scores, or to master fractions. If students aren’t learning, learn a new approach. Don’t wait to be asked to change – make the changes that you know will work best.
Don’t wait to be asked – let administrators and policy makers understand what classroom conditions are and offer to help design solutions. Every stakeholder in education holds good intentions, but teachers are the ones who see the impact of stakeholder’s decisions on student learning. The feedback that decision-makers need will never be shared, and we’re not likely to be rated among the top ten, unless teachers don’t wait to be asked.
Ernie Rambo, PhD, is a National Board-certified educator in the area of Early Adolescent – Generalist.Ernie has taught many subjects at the middle school level, including science, engineering, and U.S. History. She has also served as a virtual community organizer and teacher blogger for the Center for Teaching Quality. Ernie served as a teacher representative with Nevada Succeeds’ What’s Next Nevada? Project and participates with the Mojave Teacher Pipeline Project and the Education Career Pathways group. Retired after thirty years of teaching in the Clark County School District, NV, Ernie is currently active with the Nevada National Board Professional Learning Institute, supporting National Board candidates through their professional learning journeys. Find her on Twitter @RamboTeacher.