A new school year has begun for many of us. I returned this past Monday. Like everyone else in the education field, we’re training, organizing, planning, and anticipating the arrival of a new season of opportunity, a new chance to have an impact on a new group of students. When I was a classroom teacher, I used to reflect on this opportunity/responsibility periodically, especially at this time of year or times when I needed a bit of a kick in the pants. It’s a valuable exercise for me, because it can be way too easy for me to lose track of what is most important under the avalanche of the vast responsibilities that go with working as a teacher. It’s not any different in my current role, either. We’ve made a ton of changes, including completely switching departments, reducing personnel, and changing school assignments, to name just a few. Quite a bit of what my co-workers and I do won’t necessarily be what I’ve done in the past. Because of this, I can’t put a really firm finger on all of the specific tasks I’ll be undertaking this year. However, the ultimate goal is the same: to equip students to succeed in school and beyond.
There are many resources that outline the types of knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire by the time they walk out our school doors for the final time (TEKS, NETS, and the Framework for 21st Century Learning are a few examples.). Numerous educational experts, futurists, policy makers, and others add to these goals and are fond of stating that although many of the skills/knowledge students will need cannot even be specified yet, very specific, 21st century skills are critical. Lesson plans, free resources, and tools are available like never before to get us there, thanks largely to the Internet and the climate of sharing it has spawned. Never before have teachers and students had access to a greater wealth of resources that enable them to develop the skills they need and do revolutionary things not possible even a decade ago.
Despite these facts, however, we still trudge along in many schools and classrooms, performing the same rituals and tasks of a time that has long passed. Certainly, much blame can
be laid at the feet of a high-stakes testing environment which stubbornly refuses to move forward. Teachers fear reprimand, even the loss of their positions when test scores don’t pass muster. However, there is ample evidence that the tired, old methods of getting kids to successfully perform on tests (drill-and-practice, repetition, isolating skills, etc.) are not the only or best means of accomplishing this, and that these ages-old practices are neither engaging our students or keeping them in school, and that they are leaving our kids very ill-equipped.
So why then, in the face of such information, does the status quo remain so entrenched? This is a complicated question with no single answer. However, I would propose that a major contributor is teacher satisfaction. Certainly, it is important that teachers love what they do and have a passion for teaching and for their students. A recent MetLife survey shows teacher job satisfaction at its highest rate, some 62%. Salaries have improved, teachers feel more respected than in the past few decades, and most are convinced that the quality of the staffs around them are outstanding. However, might this satisfaction also manifest itself in a negative way? Is it possible that many happy teachers are not just satisfied, but complacent? Education historian Diane Ravitch stated, “The greatest obstacle to those who hope to reform American education is complacency.” I’m certainly not advocating that we make the educational workplace more hostile, but do we need to make it more uncomfortable? Shouldn’t a radically evolving society expect our schools to follow suit? It can definitely be argued that this isn’t always the case, so maybe what is needed is for us as educators to expect and demand this change. Might our students benefit from greater degrees of dissatisfaction among our ranks? Satisfaction has left us with a real void between what we’re emphasizing and what students really will need to succeed in life.
The question then becomes, how do those of us in positions of leadership and influence breed this dissatisfaction? I have several suggestions. We start by shifting the conversation from our schools’ AYP to the development of the skills students will need to truly thrive. As a part of this conversation, we need to develop and utilize assessments that measure these skills. The fact is, standardized tests and the traditional, paper-and-pencil assignments in our classroom do not come remotely close to accomplishing this task. We also must create a climate that recognizes and highlights real innovation and gives status to those teachers and schools that are accomplishing more than just high test scores. In my own district’s convocation to begin each school year, schools receiving the state’s highest rankings are recognized, yet we are told that such achievements are only a small part of what we need to be accomplishing. If this is true, then why not put the spotlight on the science teacher whose students found an innovative solution to a critical community issue, or on the health teacher who promotes creativity in students’ projects to promote a healthy lifestyle? Real importance should be placed on this type of teaching and learning when the time for teacher appraisals rolls around, as well. Teachers also will need innovative and forward-thinking professional learning opportunities. In Birdville this year, campuses have been tasked with crafting their own plans, and each must include an emphasis on 21st century skills. Teachers must understand precisely what creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, etc. mean and how they can promote these qualities within their classrooms. There must exist opportunities to work collaboratively in this learning and to see what such teaching looks like in action. We need buy-in from parents and the community, as well. Parents, at times, are suspicious of classrooms that don’t resemble the schools of their childhoods. Opportunities should be provided for them to discuss the goals of schools and to be exposed to studies highlighting the critical need for change. If businesses are as unhappy with our products as we are told, they need to become very active partners in re-shaping classroom goals and practice. Involving local companies can provide a relevant, real-world context to change efforts.
As I stated, there are some questions about the role of the Instructional Technology staff in Birdville this year, and we are going through an evolutionary process. However, we know
that we are tasked with helping teachers more effectively equip their clientele for successful and happy lives away from our halls. So it might be that our first and biggest role is to be agents of dissatisfaction, leaders who illuminate the disparity that often exists between what is needed and what is classroom/campus reality. If we are successful, our roles can evolve into that of innovators, facilitators, and mentors, because teachers and schools will demand to be equipped for change, and we know how technology advocates embrace change. This is truly exciting to consider, as anyone involved in education knows that nothing is more satisfying than working with a group of learners whose dissatisfaction has made them eager and hungry to learn and grow, and these are the learners who will leave the lessons and put the learning into action, and real growth and change become possible.
Best wishes to everyone involved in education as the new year begins. May it be truly dissatisfying!