Great Schools for Teachers and Students

I’ve been reluctant to say this out loud or in public.

Embarrassment.

Like it or not, might it be that schools exist to benefit and serve teachers as well as students? As if that is something to be ashamed of.

There is an ethos of service (in my mind at least) that service is a self-sacrifice. I want to let go of that. Service is self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-actualization.

Bernie’s Zen at its core is realizing that thinking, exemplified by the self-object dichotomy, is a delusion. The teacher-students dichotomy may well be the central delusion of education.

Stop and reflect.

There are no students without teachers and no teachers without students. Separating them conceptually, that’s something that we do in our minds, analytically.

Out of the dualistic thinking come all the great sicknesses of education. Dualistic thinking leads to an image of education in which students and teachers have distinctive and dichotomous roles. In our minds.

Teachers give assignments, students complete assignments (or don’t).

Teachers give grades; students get grades.

Teachers design curricula (courses of study). Students follow curricula.

Great teachers create exciting lessons; students get excited.

A bad paradigm.

There are no assignments unless there is both someone to give and someone to receive it.

There are no grades without a giver and a receiver.

There are no lessons without both teachers and students. No assignments.

Can we begin to change the paradigm?

We are beginning to change the paradigm right now, this year, at New Ventures, our transfer high school. We are pushing ourselves.

Can we begin by creating a course in hospitality in a new way? By letting go of the dichotomy? Can we imagine education as a collaboration between teachers and students?

Let’s begin with a question.

What knowledge and skills should students graduate with in order to get jobs in the hospitality sector?

Full time or part-time, perhaps to help support themselves through college?

In the old paradigm, this is a question for the teachers. But let’s address the question to the teachers and students together.

Can teachers and students together interview managers from the hospitality sector? What skills and knowledge are they looking for in hiring? Who does the hiring? Interview the Human Resource people from the hotels and airlines. What skills and knowledge are they looking for?

As they say, this is not rocket science. The people in the field will tell the teachers and students, the class, what they are looking for. Their answers are the course (or a sequence of courses) objectives.

Then the class asks the next question — how do you know if people have these skills? How do you know if they have the knowledge that you want them to have? They ask the hospitality industry managers. In the field, in real life, how are these skills, this knowledge assessed?

This is exactly how we do “backward design” in education. [1]We design assessments on the basis of the course objectives. Bad assessment in education measures whether or not the students learned what the teacher taught rather than if the student acquired the knowledge and skills which were the course objectives. Now, plan the curriculum to prepare students to succeed on the assessments. Can we do this collaboratively? A very different paradigm.

Can we do the same thing for the HVAC industry?

And, do all students need to go through this?

Does every team of teachers and students need to go through this? Or is it enough that the inaugural class goes through the process and subsequent classes simply follow the inherited curriculum?

Or, is it rather that the big mega-learning objective is to learn how to learn what the students accomplish in a collaborative, non-dualistic teacher-student collaboration…?

I think we can do this.

But why is it important to say, “Great Schools for Teachers and Students”?

Couldn’t we, less disruptively, simply refer to  it as “great schools for teaching and learning”? It sounds less radical because the students are the beneficiaries, it seems, of both great teaching and great learning.

I am trying to build up the courage to be clear.

When we started writing our first charter for Lavelle Prep, we were appalled by two statistics.

The first, that students living with mental illness have the lowest high school graduation rate of any disability group.[2]  That captured the motivation that brought our team to the charter school project in the first place.

As educators and mental health professionals, we knew that there were many, many students with the capacity to do college work who were failing to thrive in high schools and middle schools of our community and throughout America. The programs which addressed their emotional needs were so watered down academically that they “graduated” if they were lucky without being given a reasonable shot at college or career success.

As we worked on designing our first school, we became convinced that segregated education for students living emotional challenges was not anymore a viable alternative for this group than it was for racial minorities. Our integrated school model emerged in this planning process.

And during this planning process, we came across a second appalling statistic: “Nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years.”[3] This was a huge shock. If 40 or 50% of medical school graduates or nursing graduates were leaving those professions, there would be White House Conferences, legislative commissions and blue ribbon panels issuing reports and screaming for action.

We wanted to fix this but we didn’t talk about this so much. After all, charter schools were created by state governments to address the needs of students who were lost and neglected in our schools, in some cases whole communities of kids whose schools were failing miserably.

But charter schools were not created to put the missing joy back into teaching.

And certainly, there was nobody shouting that you can’t fix the student experience without fixing the teaching experience.

And vice versa.

In our tradition of dualistic, dichotomous thinking, if noticed at all, these two problems are unrelated. Indeed, the general wisdom, to the extent that anyone was actually paying attention to the flight of the teachers, seemed to be that you could fix the teachers experience by increasing salaries and providing pensions. Simply a subcase of the great American prosperity myth: Yes, work is meaningless but that’s okay if you make a good salary and have a comfortable retirement.

And, of course, the goal is to retire as early as possible.

Are we opting for meaningless lives because nothing else is possible? Is that what we think? Is there an alternative for teachers? Can we build schools in which real learning takes place? Education?

And where in the process do teachers and students experience the joy? Where teachers earn a good living and where above average contributions earn above average rewards.

It is an aspect of our dualistic thinking — when we delude ourselves in the belief that we can really create schools in which there is a meritocracy for students but where teachers are recognized and rewarded on the basis of seniority.

We need to build schools in which students are cared for and respected and we need to build schools in which teachers are cared for and respected. And it is delusional to think that we can do one without the other.

But, do we dare say it?

Can we say that we are building “Great Schools for Teachers and Students”?

If we say it out loud, will the sky fall?

[1] The backward design framework suggests teachers plan for overarching learning goals and how they will assess those goals prior to thinking about and planning for how they will teach it.
[2] U.S. Department of Education, Twenty-third annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Washington, D.C., 2001.
[3] https://www2.ed.gov/documents/respect/teaching-profession-facts.doc