Teaching Now: Time for Change

My blog has been MIA for far too long while I dealt with some medical challenges, but I am back. Throughout this absence I’ve been pondering the future of education, convinced that teaching during the pandemic has created an opportunity for meaningful change yet concerned that we aren’t seeing that change come to fruition.  

In my optimistic naivete, I had envisioned a more student-centered approach with more time for collaboration and independent work. Zoom fatigue is real for both learners and teachers –surely we would see a shift like this.

Sadly, I don’t think we have seen that shift. Teachers are overwhelmed with hybrid learning, with the challenge of keeping students engaged in virtual platforms that don’t foster relationships, with student absenteeism and distraction… and the list goes on. Students and their families also seem overwhelmed by the challenges of hybrid and virtual learning.

Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academy, confirms this: “These traditional lessons are also too long and not interactive enough to hold a student’s attention over a video conference. The traditional paper-based homework that’s being assigned does not provide students with enough feedback or teachers with enough information to understand what students are learning” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/opinion/coronavirus-school-digital.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200819&instance_id=21408&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&section_index=3&section_name=idea_of_the_day_how_to_improve_remote_learning&segment_id=36497&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2].

Torrey Trust offers a clear vision for a better of way of doing things. A University of Massachusetts – Amherst professor of Educational Technology, she shares graphics that demonstrate alternative approaches to serve educators and their learners. The one I chose to include above offers concrete options to improve teaching and learning. Each link provides specific approaches and activities. For example, her “Connected Learning” link suggests multiple team-based activities, including team challenges, virtual board designs, and community quilts. Each strategy provides another way for students to actively learn together if the teacher provides a framework related to content. The National Writing Project supports this kind of connected Learning: “Young people learn best when actively engaged, creating, and solving problems they care about, and supported by peers who appreciate and recognize their accomplishments” [https://lead.nwp.org/knowledgebase/what-is-connected-learning/]. Her link to Universal Design for Learning strategies offers ways optimize individual choice and autonomy, customize the display of information, and vary methods for response [https://goalbookapp.com/toolkit/v/strategies].

Classrooms that use strategies like these employ active learning. The Harvard Gazette reminds us, “Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think” [https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/]. The authors describe classes in which they “start each topic by asking students to gather in small groups to solve some problems. While they work, we walk around the room to observe them and answer questions. Then we come together and give a short lecture targeted specifically at the misconceptions and struggles we saw during the problem-solving activity. So far we’ve transformed over a dozen classes to use this kind of active-learning approach. It’s extremely efficient — we can cover just as much material as we would using lectures” [Ibid.] Compared with a control group that experienced only lectures, the active learners scored far higher on tests on the material.

During my own teacher training, one of my supervisors told me I was too focused on content, that I should consider teaching college because of that focus. By the time I was teaching my Problem-Based Learning class in the late 1990s, my focus had shifted to process so dramatically that even my traditional curriculum classes grew more student-centered. Over time, my students clearly showed more engagement and satisfaction.

My naïve hope that this kind of shift would be forced by our emphasis on online and hybrid learning may have been foolish, but it’s not too late to move toward this kind of teaching. We need a better way. Our teachers would be more fulfilled, and our students deserve it.

What Do Young Teachers Really Want

When I decided to become a teacher at an early age, I didn’t consider many factors. I just knew that teachers had made a difference in my life, and I wanted a chance to do that. New, young teachers seem far more savvy than I was, and they have more career options as well. Microsoft Education, in partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit, surveyed over a thousand student teachers and early career teachers around the world. Their findings surprise me only in their universality.

“The younger generation of teachers are digital, global, social, mobile, and visual,” said Mark Sparvell, an education leader at Microsoft. “They prioritize social-emotional learning, … they prioritize global issues. This is a very values-oriented generation—they seek to work with purpose and passion, and without that, they’ll leave.” We need young teachers to stay and thrive. Our students can’t afford the revolving door any more.

This survey offers insights into what these young teachers really want and need. More than half the teachers surveyed “chose the profession because they enjoy working with children, and 46 percent said they want to make an impact on future generations.” But 45 percent are worried about low salaries and about stress and burnout. They are clear on their top priorities: improving physical learning spaces, increasing the size of the workforce, and having more technology in the classroom. Yet the respondents, who really want to use technology for higher order thinking skills, feel inadequately trained to do that and find a lack of sufficient technology tools and support. They also anticipate increasing classroom diversity but feel insufficiently prepared to teach in a multi-cultural and/or multi-language setting. What will we do to address these concerns?

These concerns matter. Students whose teachers have adequate training and tools will benefit. And teachers who feel they have adequate training and tools may stay in the profession. As a group, teachers are getting younger: “According to research done by University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, the most common age of a public-school teacher now ranges from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. In 2007-08, the most common age was 55. In 2015-16, about 60 percent of newly hired teachers in public schools were younger than age 29.” The National Teacher Principal Survey tells us that 44% of teachers leave the profession within five years, a rate higher than the national average for career changes. For schools and students to succeed, we must commit to address the concerns of these younger teachers or risk having a less experienced, less stable teaching force.

As a country, we need well-educated students who are prepared for the future. We need teachers to stay in the profession and to continue to grow. Money could address the concerns they have expressed for better physical spaces, increased hiring, and more availability of technology. Meeting professional development [PD] needs, however, gets trickier. During my career, PD too often consisted of one-hit wonders as we looked at a different issue every semester or new school year. Only my training in Problem-Based Learning was ongoing with mentors and a peer group. That training really transformed my teaching. We must provide relevant and ongoing PD for all teachers, especially those younger teachers with limited experience, to thrive.

Surprisingly, these survey respondents don’t see a need for professional development to address the concerns they’ve expressed, perhaps because they’ve experienced the kind of fragmented, often irrelevant or abstract PD that turns teachers off. We can and must do better. According to Roxanna Elden, a former teacher and a writer who provides resources for beginning teachers, “new teachers want advice, but they are often intimidated to admit that they are struggling or don’t know everything. Online communities can give them concrete, nonjudgmental advice.” Young teachers need release time to work with non-supervisory mentors in a low-risk situation, to observe, to be observed, and to discuss all those observations. That, too, takes commitment and money. Too often glib statements emerge about how much Americans care about education. For those statements to stand, we must back them up with resources. The alternative is far more expensive in the long run.

[http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2020/01/heres_what_gen_z_teachers_around_the_world_want.html]

Role Models Who Mirror Their Students

A week ago the Chicago Tribune Sunday paper ran a front-page story about the unusual journey of a man of color to his current position teaching sixth grade at a Chicago public school.[1] His story feels compelling. The challenges he faces are all too familiar.

Two things really struck me, though:

  1. The research data that reinforces the importance of students having role model who looks like them.
  2. The value of social engineering to make sure schools have role models that mirror their populations.

According to this article, “the number of black teachers in Chicago Public Schools declined to 21 percent, while the number of students of color grew to 84 percent, including 37 percent African-American and 47 percent Hispanic… [yet] black students who had just one black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college and those who had two were 32 percent more likely.” I grew up in a teaching profession dominated by hetero white females like myself. How do we meet the needs of a diverse student body and provide them with role models they can relate to if our teachers don’t mirror the student population?

This teacher found his way to the classroom through the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program. “The mission of the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program is to prepare aspiring teachers for successful and long-lasting careers in urban schools.”[2] They offer a two-year Master of Arts in Teaching followed by three years of mentorship. That mentorship has helped their students succeed: “Ninety-two percent of UChicago UTEP graduates are still teaching in urban schools after five years compared to the national average of 50 percent.”[3] Although their mission doesn’t specify seeking diverse representation, the pictures of their students and alumni suggest a very diverse group. This program is one way to develop a pipeline of diverse teachers who provide students with role models who look like them. There should be others.

Social policy can shape outcomes for good. When my children were little and we wanted a primary parent raising them, the tax code of the time cut us a break financially that helped make that choice possible. Now parents can get tax credits help them pay for childcare. In both cases the IRS rules provide a kind of social engineering. Let’s use that kind of social engineering to grow a more diverse teaching population. Students need to see themselves in at least some of their teachers. Why not encourage more programs like the University of Chicago UTEP? Why not offer tax credits or other enticements to minority candidates for teaching? Let’s get a teaching population that mirrors the student body and has the skills to support and grow those students.

We say we care about children in this country, but we ignore much of what we know they need because it’s expensive and/or difficult to work to meet those needs. Programs like this one, programs that not only encourage diverse individuals to become teachers but also give them the support to succeed and stay in the profession, mean students can have role models they can relate to. If that increases the chances for success for those students, why aren’t we doing more to make it happen?


[1] https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-male-black-teacher-first-year-chicago-20190103-story.html

[2] https://utep.uchicago.edu/

[3] Ibid.