How do we ensure that we have the best teachers in all of our schools? We’ve already taken the first step by acknowledging that our best teachers aren’t drawn to serve in our highest needs schools. We also know that these schools and teachers need significant additional support in order to begin to make a difference. We haven’t yet defined what the additional support must look like and what it will cost. To date, many band-aid solutions have been put into place. It is time to make a major commitment to enacting real change for our most needy children. We must also commit to developing excellence in each and every teacher.
This type of change happens at a grassroots level and must be tailored to local needs. This means that school districts, schools and teachers must be empowered and supported to create learning environments that will maximize learning, growth and development for each and every child in their care. Sound impossible? Where do we begin?
Commit to taking action now.
My last book was entitled “Real Leadership Real Change — Moving beyond research and rhetoric to create a new future for public education.” Although this was a bold title, I felt it was necessary to acknowledge that we have enough studies, enough policies, enough legislation … enough! What we need is a big-picture plan in each school district and each school to guide action that will make a real difference.
Commit to a more decentralized funding and planning model.
As a principal, I was empowered to create a school that would best suit the needs of my students living in a mobile home park. The school was funded based on the needs of our community. From a base funding per student rate, I received additional funds for students with special needs and students living in poverty. I could also apply for funding for special projects. For example, I proposed that, even though my students lived in very challenging circumstances, we still had three percent gifted and talented students. We received several thousand dollars and ran Renzulli’s Revolving Door Model of gifted education for our students. Students, teachers and parents were thrilled.
We defined the learning styles of each and every student and taught them accordingly. We removed the grades from our school as they were artificial barriers to the concept of continuous improvement. We had physical education every day because our students lived in an area where they didn’t have much opportunity or space for safe, outdoor play. Teachers thrived as they felt trusted to design an individualized education program for each of their students, while being accountable for results.
It is in schools and classrooms everywhere that excellent teachers are doing whatever it takes to get through to students on an individual basis. Students must be treated as individuals, by teachers with specific strengths and talents, in schools with varying needs and established cultures. Funding and planning must be decentralized if we are to nurture excellence in our schools.
Hire the right people and empower them to make a difference.
As a principal of a large, inner-city school in Ottawa, Canada I was empowered, within some policy constraints, to hire people who were the right fit for our high-needs school and who wanted to be part of our team. Each teacher bought into our mission, “To maximize learning through students, staff, parents and community working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared responsibility.” Our Motto was even more powerful in driving action and results: “Refuse to Lose.” This referred to the fact that we would never give up on a child nor would we allow them to give up on themselves. These two statements were central to the effective empowerment of all staff. They knew what they needed to do and were given every possible support to be successful. We made a difference each and every day.
Be the change.
Policies and procedures don’t make change happen. Mandates and targeted funding don’t either. People do. So many of us know what needs to be done to move our education system forward yet we tend to await the next latest directive on what to do, how to do it and how to measure it. All the while, we’re working in the real world of hungry children, frightened children, children who learn in different ways, children who need a stable adult in their lives and children who are ready to find their place in the world. It is teachers in the classroom and principals in schools who can do this.
We must take control at the local level and begin to create schools where our best teachers want to make a difference and feel supported in doing so. This is happening in many schools throughout America and it should be happening everywhere. Empowerment is the answer.
Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change.” She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education.
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