The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How to Help Teachers Improve and Become Masters of their Profession

on March 9, 2018

Over the past week I’ve been trying to write about some teaching practices that are popular in many schools around the country today. The first one I tackled was”Growth Mindset, which claims to help students become smarter by exerting greater effort, and the second was using “coaches” to help classroom teachers become better at their job. Unfortunately, the task defeated me because I disagreed with the theories that generated both programs and mistrusted the reported positive results. In the end, I decided to spare my readers–and myself–and erased all I had written on those topics.

The good news is that I found something to publish today; a piece I wrote and posted more than a year ago about helping teachers to grow in their profession, and their ability to take on new responsibilities and create new programs. In addition, as I copied the old piece I remembered more events from the past and added them to my original essay.

Recently, there has been a lot of support for teacher collaboration as a way to develop better teaching and better learning.  Although I agree, I recognize that it is not easy to make collaboration happen. Today’s teachers have more than enough work to do in their planning, teaching and paperwork, plus adapting to new responsibilities fostered  by changes in national policies. There is little or no time for them to meet with their colleagues or teachers from other schools. I think that school administrators should be facilitators of teacher collaboration by scheduling teachers at the same level to have common planning time at least twice a week. But even they don’t have much freedom to enact change.

Back in “the good old days”, when I served as a principal at two very different elementary schools, one for twelve years and the other for sixteen years, I was able to construct daily schedules that gave same grade teachers common planning periods every day. Sometimes,I would join teachers in their planning time, but mostly I left them on their own to solve classroom problems, write new units, and even create new ways to work with struggling students.

At times, and with parents permission, same grade teachers were also able to exchange students who were not fitting well in their assigned classrooms, socially or academically. Teachers might also switch classes for a while when there was a topic in which one of them was exceptionally strong. But the best results I saw at both schools were improved teaching–especially by young teachers–less stress for all teachers, and the emergence of leadership through opportunities to create new classroom practices and teach others how to use them.

The idea of joint planning times had come to me a few years earlier when I was theEnglish Department Chair at a new high school.  There the principal gave me the freedom to set daily schedules for my teachers.  I made sure that those teaching at the same grade level had the same planing time every day, and that sometimes they were able to meet with teachers from other grades to assure coordination throughout our program.

Aside from teacher collaboration and growth, what I would like to see in schools today is teacher autonomy in all classrooms, plus leadership throughout a school.  What I never dreamed of when I set up grade level common planning times, was the emergence of leadership and creativity in so many teachers and their willingness to give extra time to the school without any pressure from me.

For instance, one teacher at my first elementary school volunteered to create and run a school store during the noon hour one day a week. Using more of her own time, she trained and supervised student store workers, and met with those who wanted help to plan for products they could make and sell.  Other teachers donated time for new projects over the years, especially our “Gifted program”, which was voluntary for all students to join.

At my second school one teacher offered to manage a middle school “Jobs Program” by interviewing and advising students who wanted to participate, keeping track of their work time, checking the quality and reliability of their performance, and planning end-of-the-year raffles to reward  students for the amount of time they had worked. Another teacher volunteered to manage students in our “Adopt-a-Road” cleanups.  But, perhaps the most active contributor was our school custodian, who helped by supervising student workers, and later created a school re-cycaling program that won an award for us.

Unfortunately, my memory is not good enough to honor all the teachers and school workers who donated so much time and bright ideas to make our schools better places for all of us and the students who participated in extra activities wholeheartedly because they liked being at our school.  I only wish today’s schools had the freedom for teachers, staff members, students, and principals to do what is needed to make learning a wonderful experience, instead of the drudgery it has become under state and national control today.


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