I have been teaching humanities to ninth-graders at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston for the last 12 years.
It’s the middle of my first year back in the classroom after a year away as the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. While on my journey, I observed three patterns in particular that I’d like to share: Teacher leadership, social and emotional learning, and fellowship.
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Not all teachers will have the chance to travel around the country like I did, but I’m hopeful that by sharing some of the lessons I learned last year, I can “pay it forward” to my colleagues.
I’m hopeful that by empowering teachers to lead, these patterns can be tailored for replication in school districts and charters around the country to improve education for all of our kids.
1. Teacher leadership. One teacher I’ve had the privilege of learning from is my colleague Kevin Cormier. Kevin teaches math at Nissitissit Middle School in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He was concerned that teachers were overwhelmed by the data they had access to, so he became a district data coordinator and launched a website to help more teachers learn how to use data. And because there are only so many hours in a day, Kevin’s principal and superintendent made room in his schedule for his work as a teacher-leader.
Kevin’s story reminds me that in the most functional and successful educational environments I saw last year, teachers were respected as professionals. Administrators shared leadership with teachers, trusting their expertise and leaning on them to drive change from within the school. When teachers raised concerns about school systems or policies, administrators listened. And, most importantly, this kind of teacher leadership was made possible through hybrid roles, dedicated professional learning time and attention to sustainable practices, rather than expecting teacher-leaders to balance this work on top of our already-full plates.
2. Social and emotional learning. One of my most exciting celebrity moments last year was the day I stepped into a colorful second-grade classroom in Ramallah, Palestine, to meet Hanan Al Hroub. Hanan was named the 2016 Global Teacher of the Year by the Varkey Foundation, and spending time with her revealed why. She showed off the teaching tools she’d crafted from recycled materials, jumped on a trampoline in a part of the room called “the garden,” and led her students in a joyful, impromptu song. Hanan talked to me about the need for our classrooms to be warm and welcoming places where teachers know students well and can meet their needs.
Back at home in the United States, teachers I met agreed with Hanan’s ideas. Everywhere I went last year — red states and blue states, urban areas and rural, traditional public schools and charters — educators were talking about social and emotional learning (SEL).
When I asked teachers what they most wanted to change about the way education works, they told me they wished schools could be more responsive to students’ needs as whole people, not just as scholars. Schools everywhere were innovating by creating spaces within classrooms for students to self-regulate, teaching students to identify and reflect on their own emotions, and facilitating professional development on SEL.
I heard from teachers at both Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago and the Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Washington, about how they teach students to recognize and regulate their own emotions so they can learn. At Polaris, students have access to a break-out space called “The Hot Spot” that is stocked with self-regulation strategies and resources, like journaling supplies, pictures and manipulatives. At Jason Lee, it’s called the “reset desk.” At Roosevelt High School in St. Louis, every student participates in “restorative circles.”
Again and again, at these schools and others, I heard teachers, students and school leaders talking about schools as families. “Kids are loved here,” one Roosevelt administrator told me, unknowingly echoing Hanan’s words. “Everything starts from there.” Regardless of whom, what or where we teach, the need to rethink how we teach through the lens of SEL is at the top of many educators’ minds.
3. Fellowship. The most striking experience I had as Teacher of the Year was the opportunity to build relationships with my fellow teachers. I talked about teaching for social justice with new friends from Missouri and New Hampshire, learned about “gamification” from colleagues in Nevada, and commisserated with countless teachers about the pressures of standardized testing. Sometimes, in teaching, we feel isolated from one another. Having the chance to meet and talk to other teachers — to swap anecdotes and best practices — not only makes us feel more plugged-in and informed, but also gives us a sense of camaraderie and support. These fellowships can be formal or informal, online or in person. I know a lot of teachers who use Twitter to cultivate their own teaching networks and stay connected.
As I round the corner into the next grading period at my school, I’m settling into my “new old” role and setting goals for my own growth. The questions I’m asking myself these days center less on whether I’m worthy and more on how I can continue learning now that I’m home: How can I encourage and make space for other teachers to step into leadership roles? What does social and emotional learning really look like in my classroom? What will I learn from my teacher network today that will inspire my own practices while elevating those of others as we work collectively to prepare our students for what comes next?