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Trust in Teachers: Let's Include Legislators and Students

Something I love about being a teacher in the summer is that I have the time to be involved in a variety of interesting projects. This summer is no different. In early June, I attended the National Conference of State Legislatures in Tiburon, CA along with four CTQ teachers. (Check out posts by my colleagues Justin Minkel and Rod Powell about this experience.)

I’ve also been involved in an ongoing collaboration with three other Kentucky educators and eight students called The Postsecondary Project. We are examining college affordability, readiness, transition issues, and we hope to create policy recommendations by early fall.

Although these two experiences couldn’t be more different, one common theme emerged: How much does the public really trust teachers?

During the NSCL, one conversation that struck me involved assessments. A legislator said that without yearly state testing, many parents wouldn’t know whether their children were performing at grade level.

I was dumbfounded. Sure, I knew that assessment data is seen as one way to measure school progress (and sometimes even teacher effectiveness). But it hadn’t occurred to me that some parents rely solely on assessment data to evaluate their child’s progress in school.

I had so many questions. Why wouldn’t parents just ask the teacher how their child was doing?  Wouldn’t the teacher be able to give a much clearer, more comprehensive picture?  What value do parents truly place on summative assessments?

If parents don’t trust teachers to provide this information, then what does this say about our trust in teachers’ ability to know and assess their students?

I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea and what it means for public education. When I attended a meeting with high school students a few weeks later, I wasn’t surprised to hear the issue of teacher trust mentioned again. This time, however, the conversation surrounded curriculum.

After reading a policy recommendation about providing teachers with well-designed curricula, Eliza Jane, a rising senior in Lexington, Kentucky, had this to say:

“I think we can trust teachers to create their own curriculum. So much of what they can teach is specific to the children they are teaching.  Also, if they aren’t capable of designing their own curriculum, do we really want to hire them to teach our children?”

Powerful and poignant. This 17-year-old summed up everything that I had been thinking since the NCSL conference.

So the question is: What are teachers capable of? And, perhaps more importantly, do we trust them to be capable?

I’m not sure that I’ll have all the answers by the end of this summer. But I know for sure that conversations like these must involve ALL stakeholders—legislators, teachers, administrators, and, most importantly, students. 

5 Comments

Tori Mazur commented on July 11, 2014 at 10:15am:

Students Leading the Way

Don't you love working with students who are so tuned in to their own learning?  Sounds like you have some future leaders there.  It's reassuring that some of them realize they can trust us and what we are trying to share with them in our curricula.  I even appreciate when they flat out ask, "Why do we have to know this?" or "When we will we ever use this?"  Being honest with them sometimes requires me to tell them that I have no idea, but we're partly preparing them for the unknown.  That requires a lot of trust!

Dave Orphal commented on July 11, 2014 at 12:39pm:

Memories of Finland

One of the things that stuck me most about the Finish education system was the trust between teachers, law-makers, parents, and students.  I think this happens primarily for two reasons:

First, teachers are involved in the crafting of educational policy.  It seems to me that in American, the assumption is that the school-reform program du-jour WILL work.  If and when it doesn't, the assumption is that teachers failed to for faithfully follow the reform.  In Finalnd, the asumption is that teachers will faithfully follow the reform, because teachers helped craft the reform in the first place.  If and when a reform fails to produce the desired results, then the teachers and law-makers go back to the drawing board and make adjustments together.

Second, the above process is possible in Finland, because they set a high bar for entry into the profession.  In America, we'll allow just about anyone to take a classroom and give teaching a go.  Only after teachers are in the classroom, are we concerned about how good they are.  In Finland, all teachers go through a rigorous, multi-year training program before they ever set foot in their own classroom.

When I talk about my trip to Finland, I hear a lot of excuses about how American can't do what Finalnd does.  Yes, Finland is more honogenous than America.  However, we can do both of these things.  We can focus our concern about teacher quality at the gates to our profession and we can get classroom praticioners involved in educational policy decisions.

Kip Hottman commented on July 14, 2014 at 12:04am:

Relationship with legislators

I think Dave nailed it about the difference in systems (United States and Finland) talking about the relationships that Finnish teachers have with legislators.  How many US teachers have relationships with their senators and house representatives?  I admit that I was the worst and had no clue who represented my district until this past school year.  I never understood how important it was to be aware of policy and I only reacted to what I was told for 10 years in the classroom.  

This is a culture that I believe can change and it requires us to step out of our schools and work on forming relationships with our representatives.  Instead of being reactive when hearing policy I want to be proactive and be involved in the discussion around the creation of policy.  I love that you are leading the way Ali and I have so much respect for what you are doing!

Cindy Heine, Prichard Committee commented on July 15, 2014 at 1:42pm:

Thoughtful conversations

This thoughtful conversation brings to mind the question of how we transition from our current well-established system of teacher preparation and education policy develoment to a model similar to Finland's. This is a daunting challenge, but I believe we have begun the process. Groups like the Center for Teaching Qualty and Hope Street must work with established teacher organizations to engage in such conversations among themselves and with their elected officials and I would suggest that happen at the local, state and national level. One way to tackle the distrust issue is for policy makers to hear from thoughtful teachers like those commenting here. Another step is to engage in efforts like the Vanguard Project in Kentucky, building on efforts to improve on our teacher selection, preparation, induction, leadership and compensation process.  And the last suggestion also underway in many states is to vastly improve on teacher evaluation efforts - moving from perfunctory checklists to meaningful and helpful professional feedback. None of these are easy tasks, but necessary if we are to offer our students the highest quality teaching and learning experiences.

Julie Hiltz commented on July 18, 2014 at 11:06am:

Engaging the loudest stakeholders

Believe me. As a teacher of elementary students I realize how careful I need to be in "influencing" students. I have seen countless young students that adopt the hobbies and interests of their teachers. 

And I know this is a bit of a controversial idea on the surface but please hear me out. Can we as teachers do a better job of engaging our students to advocate on our behalf? I'm not talking about crossing any ethical lines or brainwashing but what can we be doing as teachers to help students do a better job of making their learning (i.e. our teaching) more transparent? My son tells me all the time that he learned nothing that day at school- up until the point where I ask the right questions based on what I know of his actual schedule and curriculum that day. Are there ways we can help students engage with their parents? To share their learning process and the outcomes of the day? Would that help to begin to shape the narrative?

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