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Standard 3: This letter examines how certain educational theories can be applied to create better outcomes in a K-8 school.
Standard 5: This letter shows how I can advocate for principals of education to colleagues and administrators.
Goal 3: This letter suggests ways in which the adminsitration can support development and collaboration between teachers.
Standard 6: The letter suggests models for how teachers and administrators can work together to better education.
Goal 1: The letter examines things that I have noticed in practice and situates them in the greater conversation of education theory and policy.
811 Lyon Street S.E.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
June 3rd, 2017
Faculty and Staff
As we head into the summer, I know that this is probably goodbye for more than a few of us. We already know five of our staff members will not be returning in the fall, and if experience is any predictor, more of you will be finding new work over the summer. This problem of attrition is not unique to River City; 40-50% of new teachers leave the field within their first five years of teaching (Mosel). But what can be done? No one reading this letter has the authority to raise teachers salaries, so higher pay is not an option. I would like to propose some actions that this school can take to significantly improve the quality of instruction and employee engagement at the school.
In the book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us author Daniel Pink shares a series of studies showing that when tasks are cognitively demanding, external punishments and rewards do not improve performance (Pink 2009, p. 32-58). For these tasks there are three internal motivational factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (Pink 2009, p. 10). In this letter, I will show how teaching is cognitively demanding work, offer ways we can apply these three motivational factors in our work, and examine how these factors reflect the values of quality teaching we would like to see in our school.
Teaching is demanding work. Teachers are not simply expected to keep kids safe, they are responsible for sparking interest, building foundational skills, and cultivating a sense social responsibility in more than two dozen unpredictable children. Quality teaching happens at the intersection of practice and theory. In spite of the pernicious rise of “teacher-proof” curricula, the understanding of the need for teachers to study theory in order to obtain constant growth and mastery can be seen as far back as the writings of Dewey (1904).
The application of solutions drawn from a knowledge of theory to address problems of practice is certainly cognitively demanding work. But there is another challenge to teaching that demands even more of the teacher: the social dimension. For us, working in a high poverty school demands solutions that comport with the values of both the teacher and the community. Additionally, teachers are role models for our students, and must remember that the means which we apply to our teaching represent something much larger to the students. We strive to be “transformative intellectuals who combine scholarly reflection and practice in the service of educating students to be thoughtful, active citizens” (Giroux 1988/2002, p. 1).
Teaching is cognitively demanding work that requires creative problem solving, executed in context with deference to the social implications of every action, making the carrot and stick model for teacher motivation ineffective. This leads us to look at the three internal motivational factors of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Teachers are in the unenviable position of being held responsible for an outcome (a student’s performance on standardized tests) while not having control of all of the inputs (the curriculum, the class schedule, the student’s home life and past experiences). These factors can lead to the false attribution of poor student performance to poor teaching (Kennedy 2010, p. 591). Still teachers find ways to be autonomous. Every teacher has an artifact in their classroom that they are proud of—an anchor chart that ties a particular reading standard to text messages or a flow-chart for converting decimals to fractions. These little pieces of inventiveness are important to the teacher not just because they are effective, but because they are the teacher’s own.
To nurture this sense of autonomy we must acknowledge teachers as scholars in their own right, capable of finding novel solutions to practical problems. This focus on autonomy will require a rethinking of the current staff observation procedure. In our current model, the dean observes the teacher, evaluates them against a rubric, and then tells the teacher what they need to do to improve. Giving more autonomy to the teacher will necessarily mean that the teacher will need to be the one providing the rubric. In the first O3 (meeting between dean and teacher) of the year, the teacher will define their goals for the year and help create the rubric they will be evaluated on. The dean will serve throughout the year as a coach to help the teacher meet their objectives.
Additionally, I propose that we set aside one all-school meeting a month for the purpose of peer-coaching. Following the protocol of in the attached article (Grim, et al., 2014, p. 27), teachers select a peer partner. Each member of the peer-coaching pair will outline a particular focus and explore how they can improve in this area. Through a process of non-judgmental observation, reflection, and discussion, the peer partners will work to improve each other in the area of focus. More than 80 percent of teachers who participated in a similar program at a high school in Indiana found peer-mentoring more beneficial than other forms of professional development (Grim, et al., 2014, p. 29). By allowing teachers to identify and attend to their own areas of focus, we will greatly increase teachers sense of autonomy, leaving fewer teachers saying, “I am not acting like the teacher that I wanted to be.”
The next factor to increase teacher satisfaction is mastery. The personal goal setting and peer-coaching discussed in the above section will encourage our teachers to strive for mastery. But there are also some simple steps that can be taken to further encourage teachers to continue to develop their craft. Next year, the school should set aside two professional days for mastery learning. Teachers will be able to choose from a menu of courses focused on either increasing content knowledge or pedagogical practice. These one-day courses need not be confined to our school, but could be done in partnership with other schools in the area or even done through outside organizations or online. The important thing is that teachers are given the opportunity to invest in the pedagogical and theoretical knowledge they need to feel they are teaching at their best.
Additionally, I propose that we rethink the way the we use our Teachers-in-Residence (TIR). Currently, TIR’s are used primarily as building substitutes to cover lunches, IAT meetings, or other short periods where teachers are not available. When the TIR is not needed, they are usually placed in the office to help with administrative tasks or used as behavioral support in the Student Resource Center (SRC). Given that our TIRs are teachers who are new to the field, we should instead focus on using their downtime for development. TIRs are in the unique position to have an extended field experience with a variety of teachers in a variety of settings. These experiences give young teachers the ability to “test the theories, use the knowledge, see and try out the practices advocated by the academy” (Feiman-Nemser 2001, p. 1024) in a variety of contexts.
Purpose is the final motivating factor, and purpose is why so many of us are here. Teaching is a kaleidoscope of small moments. Ultimately, our job satisfaction comes from the products of our caring and the relationships that we build. While the administration knows this, they lack clear metric for caring or relationship.
At a PD last year, each teacher was given a folder. Inside of it was a picture and the test scores of a student who had shown significant growth that year. We need formalize and expand this practice. As part of the evaluation process, deans should track the stories of six students in a teacher’s class. They should not just follow test scores, but get work samples, have conversations with the students and create a dossier of each student in the tracking group to review with the teacher. This will give the teacher and the dean the opportunity to capture and highlight the impact that the teacher is having.
A focus on the motivational factors of autonomy, mastery, and purpose have the potential to transform the lives of our teachers and make teaching feel like the true calling we want it to be. As these values filter down from the administration to the staff, they will be reflected in our scholars. We want scholars who feel engaged and accountable (autonomy). We want scholars who go beyond recitation of facts to understand the underlying principles of a given problem (mastery). And we want scholars who care for and value the culture of their work, their school, and their community and strive everyday to better themselves and those around them (purpose). This is what we recognize as quality teaching and quality education. Together we can make it happen.
Dewey, J. (1904). The relation of theory to practice in education. In The Third Yearbook of the National Society for the Scientific Study of Education: Part 1: The Relation of theory to practice in the education of teachers (pp.9-30). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). From preparation to practice: Designing a continuum to strengthen and sustain teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 1013-1055.
Grimm, E.D., Kaufman, T., Doty, D. (2014). Rethinking Classroom
Observations: Flipped peer observation leads to job-embedded teacher learning. Educational Leadership, May 2014, 24-29
Kennedy, M. M. (2010). Attribution error and the quest for teacher quality. Educational Researcher, 39(8), 591-598.
Mosle, S. (2014). Building better teachers. The Atlantic, 314(2), 42-44.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.