Let Teachers Lead: Our Teachers Know What Their Students Need

Let Teachers Lead: Our Teachers Know What Their Students Need
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As schools across the United States close for weeks—and potentially months—to slow the spread of COVID-19, communities are scrambling to reimagine education. Are districts prepared to move to online learning? How will virtual classrooms work for very young students? How will grade-level expectations be communicated and assessed? 

In this time of great uncertainty, it is imperative to let teachers lead the way. For years, we’ve allowed private consultants and government officials to take charge of innovation in our education system, but putting decision-making power in the hands of outside consultants and lawmakers turns classroom teachers into implementers instead of innovators. Those who have their fingers on the pulse of education in America already know that teachers are best equipped to innovate and redefine education. In short, we can trust teachers to know what their students need, even—and perhaps especially—in dire circumstances. 

Understanding academics and achievement

Although COVID-19 has upended many American schools in sudden and unexpected ways, there has long been a movement to “disrupt the status quo” in public education. In a recent EdSurge article, Danielle Arnold-Schwartz traced the beginning of these efforts to the Nation at Risk report released during the Reagan Administration. According to the 1983 report, "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” No wonder, then, that America subsequently began to favor “disruption” and “innovation” in education—and came to distrust its teachers in the process.

In her EdSurge piece, Arnold-Schwartz called for a return to an education system led by research in neuroscience and child psychology before going on to contend that putting our trust in alarmist reports and outside “thought-leaders” devalues the years of education and experience that teachers bring to their classrooms every day. After all, working directly with students gives educators valuable insight into how each student learns, what motivates their success, and how they handle failure. 

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Now that our teachers are guiding students’ learning in the midst of a crisis, understanding and educating the whole child is more important than ever. With parents, students, and government officials understandably worried about how extended school closures and online instruction will affect learners, the key to navigating this uncharted territory is to trust the educators who understand their students and the science of learning. 

Preparing for success in a different world

Long before the world heard of coronavirus, our increasingly digital and global society began prompting calls for education reform. Some leaders in the business world have gone so far as to suggest that American schools aren’t “preparing children for a radically different world” now heavily reliant on technology and multicultural competence, and that a national “learning crisis” is occurring as a result. On a global scale, a group of experts gathered by the Center for Universal Education at Bookings and the Inter-American Development Bank predicted that in a little more than a decade, 800 million children in low- and middle-income countries would “reach adulthood without the skills they need to thrive in work and life.”

Certainly, education must be responsive to globalization and rapid technological advancement. But when it comes to making change in education, teachers already have the matter well in hand. After visiting public schools in all 50 states over the course of a single school year, Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Can Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, discovered that many teachers are already leading the way in education innovation. “It’s time to move on and start trusting those who own the consequences of what happens in the classroom—our teachers and students,” wrote Dintersmith while reflecting upon what he learned from the experience. “They are more than up to the challenge, and are doing amazing things all over the country. Time to unleash them!” 

Indeed, a new challenge has been unleashed on the education system in 2020, albeit under extremely unfortunate circumstances. By mid-March, public schools in more than half of states had been shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, prompting educators to reimagine the ways they deliver instruction by thinking creatively to meet individual needs. 

Building trust in teachers

It has never been more important to trust educators. In this time of unexpected education reform, we need to give teachers the security to voice their ideas, which is something that Vicki Zakrzewski of the Greater Good Science Center referred to as “psychological safety.” Zakrzewski—who serves as the center's education director—noted that while fear makes it difficult to problem-solve and may cultivate unwillingness to try new ideas, psychological safety allows teachers to openly discuss their observations and ideas, to take chances, and to risk failure and try again. All these skills are necessary for true innovation, and all will be especially important in the weeks and months to come.

Already, we can see educators rising to the challenge. For example, teachers in Boone County, Kentucky, are finding non-traditional instruction (NTI) options that fit their students. Because the district had previously purchased Chromebooks for its third- through 12th-grade students, older students were able to quickly make the transition to online learning; meanwhile, educators filmed videos and collaborated with each other to bring lessons online for younger learners. Because approximately one-fifth of the county's students do not have easy access to virtual classrooms, educators decided to disseminate paper packets and work with the district to facilitate access to internet hotspots. This is the kind of innovative thinking and creative problem-solving that students need from teachers—and clearly, we can trust our education system to deliver.

Whether creating immediate change during a public health crisis or working toward long-term education reform, teachers must be the ones to lead the way. Good practice is not borne from panic or sensationalism, but from trusted professionals who are ready and willing to educate the whole child. By putting our trust in educators’ skills and abilities, we can make way for true innovation in education.


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