There are a lot of questions in the field of education these days. Most of which are devoted to solving problems ranging from the achievement gap to teacher evaluations and everything in between. At each conference I attend I have heard countless answers – each promising that it will solve the problem and lead us all to some kind of educational utopia.
However, most of the solutions start by pointing out what is wrong.
And that’s why we haven’t solved any of our issues yet.
We are pointing to what is wrong and not pointing to what is right.
If I did the same thing in my classroom, how long do you think I would last as a teacher?
I teach physics, for college credit, at the high school level. Straight up it is hard stuff. If I greeted my students each day by scolding them for what they have done wrong, from their homework to their handwriting, there is no way I would be able to fill the seats in my room.
Instead, I value the work they have done, commend what is correct, and further solidify the learning that did occur. At that point, as a partners in the process we look for ways to improve. It works.
By valuing the student-teacher relationship above all else, even as more important than content, students succeed at levels higher than even they expect they can reach.
As an education profession, we are spending far too much time focused on the wrong things. The reality is that there are two worlds in education. One is filled with credentials, certifications, curriculum, strategies, forms, procedures, and far, far too many acronyms to mention.
Then there is the world of education that matters; the relationships we make with students.
Many people have asked me what the largest challenge is in my career. Without a doubt the most difficult part of the job is creating and maintaining positive relationships with students. After that, everything, and I do mean everything else becomes much easier.
In fact, if we look closely at the relationship based dynamic of the classroom, we will find the answers we seek to virtually every educational issue we face.
Let’s explore the qualities of a great classroom.
1) Great classrooms are hands-on. Students learn by doing. In science, language arts, history, or any subject, students learn deeper by doing real work themselves.
2) Great classrooms are filled with confidence. The teacher has confidence in their instruction and content, and the students have a growing confidence in themselves and their abilities.
3) Great classrooms are adaptable. From assemblies to class pictures to snow days, great classrooms adapt to the situation and don’t miss a beat.
4) Great classrooms are student led. For all the effort the teacher puts in, great classrooms are only created when the students take ownership and lead the class.
5) Great classrooms are positive. Fundamentally, the entire classroom environment can be explained in one word: positive.
Now let’s think about a great education system.
1) Great education systems value experience. The experienced veteran teacher is valued for their honed skills and ability to use the events of their careers to put trends and ideas into perspective. At the same time, beginning teachers are valued for their experience with social media, technology, or world of work experience.
2) Great education systems support all participants. Teacher’s need support from their administration, just as administration needs support from the teachers. It’s two-way and on-going.
3) Great education systems are flexible. When a teacher comes up with a great idea that is against the rules, the rules get changed. Bureaucracy does not stand in the way of improving student learning.
4) Great education systems are teacher driven. Teachers know that they can effect change in a school by doing it on a regular basis.
5) Great education systems are not afraid to showcase success. Great systems value communication with the community and ensure that they are showcasing the work of the students.
Great education systems mirror great classrooms.
Look at the lists again. They are virtually the same. Interchange the words teacher, students, and administration and either list works just as well to explain the other for exactly the same reason.
That’s because we already know how to educate kids. Great classrooms do it every day. Let’s stop looking for new solutions, and instead scale up the solutions that we already know works.
Administrators should look like great teachers, with teachers being treated like their students!*
1) They let their staff get hands-on with the curriculum and professional development
2) They are confident in their knowledge, but also foster a growing confidence in their teachers
3) They adapt and change building policies to allow teachers the flexibility to teach with new tools and in new ways
4) Like a teacher they understand that the leader is not the one with the most control, instead they empower those around them.
5) Finally, success in the classroom, the school, and the community is celebrated and shared.
Imagine an entire education system built to look like a great classroom; where the underlying theme to everything, is positive relationships; with students, staff, administration, parents, and the community. If we could do that, put the real world of education first, then our problems will become much easier to handle.
*If that caught you off guard (teachers being treated like students), then I have to ask, “How are you treating your students”?
Jeff Charbonneau ( @JeffCharbonneau on Twitter) is chemistry, physics and engineering teacher at Zillah High School in Zillah, Washington. On April 23, 2013, he was named as the 2013 National Teacher of the Year by President Obama.