Defining great schools and teachers

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Just before the December holiday break I received in the mail a glossy, 100-page magazine from Denver Public Schools. It was the 2019-20 school year “Great Schools Enrollment Guide” for middle and high schools. If you’re a DPS parent, you probably got one too, or the elementary-school version. It’s intended to provide families with a one-stop shopping catalog for public schools in Denver, be they district-run, innovation or charter schools.

Intrigued by the title, I started flipping through the colorful pages, filled with shots of a photogenic, rainbow coalition collection of students. What I saw in the charts and descriptions was evidence of some great schools, to be sure, but also schools that by any measure fall short of that lofty accolade.

As I looked over the guide, it occurred to me that in the field of education, we tend to toss around grand phrases like “great schools” without pausing to ponder or explain what they mean. I decided to embark on a quick exercise: How would I define a great school in straightforward, jargon-free language?

I found the exercise to be simultaneously challenging and revealing. One challenge was coming up with a definition that avoided the political minefields that in these polarized days mar public discourse on almost any topic, education included. To be useful, a definition can’t be perceived as “anti-teacher” or “pro-teacher,” too “reformy” or not sufficiently focused on holding everyone accountable for failures.

I started by defining what we might all agree a great school should produce: engaged citizens who understand how the world works, are deeply committed to making it a better place and have the tools to act on that commitment.

To make this happen, for low-income kids in particular, might seem like an act of magic or alchemy, but in fact it’s dependent on basic human connection. In a school, nothing matters more than the connections forged between students and teachers. And for those connections to conduct deep meaning the way copper wire conducts electricity requires great teachers.

As basic as this sounds, can we all agree that great schools require great teachers?

Here we are again, needing to define greatness. Fortunately, most of us have had some great teachers during our years in school, so we have points of reference. (We’ve probably had great teachers in other contexts as well — coaches, mentors, bosses, colleagues. But that’s a topic for another day.)

When I think back on my education experience, and the great teachers who propelled me through the years, it’s not difficult to list the attributes and qualities that made some teachers great.

My great teachers:

• Always believed I could learn and instilled that belief in me.

• Inspired me to engage deeply in learning, regardless of the topic of study.

• Challenged me to do my best and gave me confidence that I could succeed.

• Could always be honest with me because they made it clear that they knew me and cared about me. Their honesty was always considerate and constructive.

• Guided me to consider issues from multiple perspectives.

• Inspired all kids in a classroom to respect one another and to behave in a way that was conducive to a learning environment for all.

• Were masters of the craft of teaching and the topics and subjects they taught.

• Made even the most challenging content comprehensible and “breathable.”

• Made everyone around them better — not just students, but peers and supervisors as well.

• Made it safe to fail and exhilarating to succeed.

Admittedly, that’s quite a list, and it’s a tall order to expect teachers to hit each and every bullet point. The greatest teachers might hit them all, but not everyone can be the greatest. The best, however, can inspire the rest toward greatness.

So if a great school requires at least some great teachers, then it also must have a great school leader, someone who attracts and retains those teachers. That means a leader who clears the decks of all the junk that impedes teachers from teaching — the busy work, the bureaucracy, the pressures unrelated to inspiring students to be their best selves.

It also means distributing leadership and accountability among the staff and working to bring out the best in those educators who don’t quite rise to that level.

Finally, a great school leader must also inspire families and the broader community to support the school in meaningful ways, which includes advocating for the school when various bureaucracies, as well-intentioned as they might be, create impediments.

In no way am I suggesting that any of this is easy. There are many obstacles that keep schools from being great, that discourage even the most gifted teachers and leaders, that get in the way of progress and success.

Nate Easley is chief executive officer of RootED, a nonprofit created to accelerate the availability of world-class public education in Denver in the Central Business District. He served on the Denver Public Schools board from 2009-13 and was board president from 2009-11. He can be reached at neasley@rooteddenver.org.

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