Psychologist Jerome Bruner said it best: “No educational reform can get off the ground without an adult actively and honestly participating—a teacher willing and prepared to give and share aid, to comfort and to scaffold...You can’t teacher-proof a curriculum any more than you can parent-proof a family.”
In other words, when the bell rings and the classroom door closes, it’s all about the teacher. Unless she’s motivated and supported, even the best reform ideas are going to flop.
Read SFPS teacher Eric LeMasters’ recent column in the Santa Fe New Mexican to see how motivated and supported he’s feeling these days. He’s in no space to embrace new ideas from the incoming superintendent, and if you talk to other teachers, you’ll find he’s not alone.
Which means the best way—the only way—to change Santa Fe’s schools is to change the way we treat our teachers.
Don’t look to our leaders on this one. Obama’s $1 billion dollar “incentivizing” program and Gov. Susana Martinez’ proposed teacher evaluation system—protested by hundreds last week—are just the latest in the trend of carrot-and-stick policies that dole out rewards or punishments based on teacher “performance.”
They’re models from the corporate world, designed to train hedge fund managers and other money-makers, whose performances are easily assessed in dollars. But how does one evaluate the “performance” of a teacher sharing Shakespeare, or photosynthesis, with 14-year-olds? Does she lose points for the kid who falls in love with literature but freezes on the unit-end test? The kid who’s struggling to decode words? The kid who needs a bad grade to piss off his parents?
By contrast, look at the way teachers are treated in Finland, education’s hottest success story. Since the 1980s, Finnish teachers have been given proper training, good salaries, real autonomy in the classroom and support from social service and health workers for their students. Treating teachers well, Finland has grown a corps of collaborative, focused professionals who use the best techniques to help their students grow—even when measured on standardized tests.
Santa Fe could follow suit. We’d start by establishing a minimum salary of $50,000 for every teacher in the city. If the Legislature can’t do it, then the city, or a motivated group of citizens, could. (By my rough estimates, it would cost us about $100 a year per person.)
But pay is not enough. We need to chip in to fund more support services for children and families, and more professional development like the Academy for the Love of Learning’s Teacher Renewal Program. (Full disclosure: I’m on contract with the Academy.) Run in partnership with the district, the program brings teachers together to explore their craft, share experiences and remember why they went into teaching. To date, it’s given more than 250 Santa Fe teachers a refuge against high-stakes testing and humiliating school “report cards,” and a way to stay passionate and focused on learning.
2. Start a Slow School Movement.
The Slow Food movement is thousands of people strong in some 150 countries, raising awareness about how we treat our planet and bodies. Santa Fe is the perfect place to launch its education counterpart. Modern brain research, and the failure of No Child Left Behind, have proven that you can’t pressure children into learning more, faster. A Slow School movement would celebrate and encourage teachers, parents and schools who give children the space, guidance and time to learn in reflective, open-ended and engaging ways.
3. Imagine the Possibilities.
Over the last year, I’ve visited successful schools that have no bells or classes; schools where kids spend half their week off-campus; schools with no set curriculum. Fifteen years ago, I would have dismissed them as outliers with little to offer mainstream public schools. But that was before 9-11 and the recession, before the consequences of global warming seemed so imminent. Major changes are coming, and if we’re going to negotiate them with grace, we must open our minds and begin reimagining what—and how—we want our children to learn.
Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what “school” could someday be in Santa Fe. Biderman is a graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe teacher and administrator.