Treating Teachers Right

At ICS your children’s emotional and academic growth are among our most important priorities.  To ensure your children are being served well, we have to be just as concerned with our teachers.  Yet the reform debate often leaves teachers feeling attacked or blamed.

Elementary-school-teacher-with-her-studentsHarvard economics professor Roland Fryer said “There’s a lot of rhetoric that if you just [fire] the teachers you can open up a magical drawer of effective teachers, pull them out and stick them in.”  Fryer noted,  “I have not been able to find that magic drawer.”

As the husband of a high school teacher, I know there’s no magic, just a lot of hard work. And that if our faculty and administration do not hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.

This weekend the Times profiled a new evaluation program in Chicago that combines principal observations and student achievement to help boost teachers’ impact. Many instructors have greeted it with cautious optimism.  But as the researchers hired to assess the program observed,  “if there is not a level of trust and transparency across all sectors of the district, the positive sentiments toward using this system to improve practice could be replaced by contention and disengagement.”

One critical task confronting me and the Board of ICS after we receive our charter is to hire a principal who merits our teachers’ trust. As with Dr. Fryer’s observations about teachers, the magic drawer of high quality principals is even harder to find.

As I have been getting to know the community and meeting parents, I’ve been lucky to be introduced to many great educators in Brooklyn.  But it will take a lot of work to find the person who can be transparent and trustworthy, inspire our staff to believe change is possible, and make the tough calls when necessary.

Another (simplifying) assumption that crops up often in ed reform debates is that if we would just implement ‘best practices’ all our teachers and classrooms would improve.  Professor Dan Willingham, who serves as an advisor to the ICS Board, knows it is never quite that easy. Discussing a new math curriculum that has had some promising results in Tampa, Dan told me “the long history of education innovations is that things go great in the experiment, and then when scaled up, they don’t work as well.”

Atul Gawande, the Boston doctor who writes for the New Yorker asked why this is. Why does an innovation like anesthesia for surgery spread nearly universally within nine months of its discovery in 1846 while an equally valuable discovery – washing hands to prevent disease transmission – takes a generation to earn surgeons’ widespread adherence?

Writing of a project to reduce infant mortality in developing countries, Gawande notes:

Voluminous evidence shows that it is far better to place the [newborn] child on the mother’s chest or belly, skin to skin, so that the mother’s body can regulate the baby’s until it is ready to take over. Among small or premature babies, kangaroo care (as it is known) cuts mortality rates by a third.

So why hadn’t the nurse swaddled the two together? She was a skilled and self-assured woman …. Resources clearly weren’t the issue—kangaroo care costs nothing. Had she heard of it? Oh, yes, she said. She’d taken a skilled-birth-attendant class that taught it. Had she forgotten about it? No. She had actually offered to put the baby skin to skin with the mother, and showed me where she’d noted this in the record.

“The mother didn’t want it,” she explained. “She said she was too cold.”

Gawande and his team knew best practices training wouldn’t change this dynamic. Carrots? Sticks?  They too tend not to work, not for long in any case. “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change,” he writes. “You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”

As his team spread out to villages to offer training it was hard. But slowly, behaviors changed. To find out what worked Gawande interviewed a trainee afterwards:

“Why did you listen to [the trainer]?” I asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”

In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.

“Why?” I asked.

All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.”

“She was nice?”

“She smiled a lot.”

“That was it?”

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

We’re unlikely to find silver bullets  as effective as anesthesia or hand-washing in building our community of strong, caring teachers at ICS.  But hiring leaders who understand the importance of trust, who can be nice but firm, and guide teachers towards practical improvement seems like a good place to start.

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