The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Supporting and Freeing Teachers to Do the Work They Know How to Do

on March 30, 2017

Today I will elaborate on something I mentioned in a recent post: the reduction of commercial teaching materials at all grade levels. To begin with I admit that I am biased because of my own experience, and I realize that the times have changed. Both teachers and principals have less freedom than we did. But that still doesn’t justify having so little faith in teachers that we must give them new textbooks and detailed teaching programs in order to do their job.

As the English department chair in a Wisconsin high School before I became an elementary school principal, I enabled teachers to avoid ordering new English textbooks and to buy modern literature instead. While not all of today’s fiction is of the same quality as many of the traditional pieces, it is far more appealing and meaningful to students today and more often produces deep thinking and good discussions. Moreover, since schools often have old textbooks still on hand or copies in the school library, they can be used when appropriate.

Later, as an elementary principal I found that teachers at that level were also eager to avoid commercial textbooks and workbooks and to buy modern literature. The problem with many commercial reading textbooks was—and still is– that they focus too much on skills and not enough on interesting stories and realistic characters.

What I came to realize at both my high school and elementary school positions was that our teachers knew how to teach reading and writing; they did not need authors or their publishers to tell them what to teach, when, or how. Moreover, they did not need school “coaches” to observe and critique them or professional speakers to present workshops. Taking an occasional college course or attending a state or national education conference, provided by school professional development funds, was always better.

If our teachers were weak in any area, it was in science. But we found help in state resources that would provide us with animals or plants when we needed them and teach us how to study them in the classroom. At the elementary level the best approach to science is growing plants, raising small animals, and hatching larvae. Such activities are appropriate and meaningful for young children,

One thing that continued to impress me as a principal was that many teachers had special knowledge and abilities that they could share with their colleagues. At our Oregon school we also had a custodian who was an expert on school recycling and enjoyed showing teachers and students how to prepare used materials. For example, she showed kids how to drain and clean used milk cartons so they could be recycled rather than thrown in a trash bin. The custodian also kept a record of our progress in recycling and designed a large chart to illustrate it.

At times we also found ways to use the skills and knowledge of parents in classrooms. In Oregon we had some parents who earned new books for their children by volunteering to help in classrooms. In Wisconsin a group of parents designed a program to make children aware of professional artwork. Although we also had an art teacher, those parents supplemented her work by bringing examples of classic art into classrooms, explaining their specials qualities, and describing the lives of famous artists.

One big advantage we had in both elementary schools where I was principal was the power to adjust school budgets to our needs. In neither place did district or state officials mandate which materials we had to buy –although they often recommended them.  I was able to manipulate the budget to get what teachers wanted and needed.

Although I recognize that school principals today have much less freedom than I had, I urge them to use whatever loopholes they can find to support and emancipate teachers,   give them opportunities to work together and try out new ideas.  Principals should also bring parents into school operations so they better understand what teachers are doing and how students are learning.  There is nothing to be ashamed of in an active,  adventurous school. It exemplifies what education is meant to be.

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