I started writing this post in Huron, SD home of the world’s largest pheasant…
…. I finished in Santa Monica, CA where I am home temporarily after three weeks when I’ve been in 5 states and 22 cities, interviewing 85 people who are knowledgeable about educating students from underserved communities.
I’ve learned we are a lot more alike than we are different
There are teachers and administrators everywhere who are working hard and sincerely care about their students. Yes, there are some who are just punching a clock and collecting a paycheck but that’s the minority, thank God.
If just caring about children was enough, our problems would all be solved.
Whether on the Sisseton- Wahpeton reservation or in downtown Los Angeles, there are not enough math and science teachers. Everywhere, we find teachers who are not certified for the subject they teach. In some schools, the teachers are not certified at all.
In some classrooms, the teachers aren’t even teachers.
You might wonder how that can be. Well, if a school cannot hire a teacher then they have a substitute teacher. Depending on the state, that substitute may be required to have a credential, two years of college or a GED.
You might think in the states that have a substitute teacher with a credential the students are getting a better education. Not necessarily so. We spoke to a highly qualified math teacher who had been a substitute for a music class, a subject about which he knew nothing. We suspect he did just as good of a job as the music teacher would have done in algebra.
There is huge variation among the quality of teachers. In some cases it isn’t that the person is a bad teacher. Just like our outstanding math teacher in the orchestra room, they are a bad teacher for that subject.
Sometimes the kindergarten teacher who is reassigned to teach fifth-grade math grows in that role and becomes outstanding but that’s not overnight.
Every school faces challenges of students who have experienced a lot of trauma, from foster care to incarcerated parents to sexual abuse to living in homes with family members who are addicted to alcohol and drugs. These challenges are more common in schools in lower-income districts but no school is immune.
Admittedly, we have spoken to a non-random sample of eductaors
Probably, the people who make time for researchers reporting back to the National Science Foundation are NOT the mediocre educators who are just doing the minimum to keep their job. I’m not bashing teachers. Every profession has a bottom half. I’m pretty certain that everyone we spoke with is in that top half.
Even from these above -average educators, we heard repeatedly the same three needs
There were differences in specifics, but everyone wanted more of these:
- More preparation devoted to “beyond the worksheets and textbooks” lessons that involve students in active learning. Whether it was maker spaces, project-based learning, laboratory experiments or manipulatives, there was general agreement that these types of lessons are better for learning and retention AND they take more time to prepare. Some teachers wanted more time to prepare their own lessons. Most would be happy with quality, standards-aligned, pre-packaged lessons they could use or modify.
- More quality professional development was something mentioned by both teachers and administrators, but more often by administration. The three areas they particularly wanted more professional development were in hands-on learning, mathematics and science.
- Better resources for assisted children impacted by trauma, ranging from migration from their home country to sexual assault. In many schools, this was the elephant in the room. They believed it was extremely difficult to get a student who was not sure where he or she would be sleeping tonight and if there would be anything to eat to focus on learning the commutative property.
Educators from schools with a large proportion of Native American students all mentioned including culture as important, as did most of the staff from programs serving African-American students. Staff from programs serving a large number of Latino students mentioned the need to consider language rather than referring to culture. The discussions around language and culture were different for the different groups, but that’s a post for another day.