In some schools, a great teacher can be used to do more harm than good. Where there are clearly identified “good” and “bad” teachers, often parents demand their child be placed in certain classes, staff members feel jealous, leaders are perceived to pick favorites, and achievement gaps develop across differing levels of instruction in the building. Where greatness is celebrated in isolation in schools, only a select group of kids benefit. Additionally, the principal who allows great teaching to remain in isolation must then accept the responsibility of choosing which children to exclude from the best his school has to offer. If we want a great educational experience for all students, we must rethink how we define and celebrate talent and greatness within schools.
For me, shared responsibility for learning became personal the day I accepted the charge of leading the school responsible for my son’s educational foundation. I found myself facing two conceptually opposite choices. I had the option to map out a pathway from teacher to teacher whom I had been told as the new principal were the best educators in the school. In doing so, I guaranteed my son a spot in the “right” teachers’ classrooms while accepting that I was leading an educational lottery where some students win and others lose. I chose instead to commit to build teams where all teachers were learning together to provide the best evidence-based instructional practices for every child, not just my son.
The action behind this choice was nowhere near as easy as the initial decision. Our school was composed of incredible teachers whose personal and professional reputations were directly tied to the performance of “their” students in each class. As a result, teachers were desperately seeking help for students who entered their doors less and less prepared for the success that fell solely on them to realize. There were not enough specialists, interventionists, or facilitators to put a dent in the struggles of our high-performing, award-winning school. Without these individual struggles, we may have never seen our desperate need to lean on one another to share the responsibility of ensuring success for every one of our students.
Since that realization, our school has become hyper-focused on adult learning for the sake of student learning. Great teaching is no longer contained to a single teacher or classroom. Instead, it has become the daily pursuit for our entire staff. Teachers are asking to observe one another, student evidence is being utilized to make decisions about what is happening in the classroom, and our teams are collaborating on how to provide specific instruction based on the individual needs of our children. We are learning to be vulnerable and admit when we need help because of our collective commitment to refuse to let any child fail.
Dr. Richard DuFour suggests that a true team will be defined by interdependent relationships, a shared goal, and a mutual accountability for that goal. As our school embraces the idea of true collaborative teams, great teaching and high levels of learning become attainable for everyone. In fact, great teaching has taken a much-needed backseat to student learning. We are learning that while one teacher cannot meet the needs of each child, together we can meet the needs of every child.
American education is struggling to successfully meet the ever-changing needs of children. In my opinion, no level of choice, teacher incentive, or privatization can compete with the feeling of knowing that you are part of a collective effort greater than yourself that is changing children’s lives. Instead of seeking the answer to bring to our schools, I have learned that the answers are often in the room, lying in wait to be discovered through the right mix of passion, collaboration, and collective effort. Great teaching is not an individual accomplishment, but a collective experience that every teacher and student deserves.