Education Is a Collaborative Process: Teachers and Leaders Have to Work Together

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Note: On Sep. 30, Harry Keller, ETCJ science education editor, shared Sam Dillon’s “4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong” (NY Times, 9.27.10) in the journal’s staff listserv. A discussion followed, and Bonnie responded with an article. -js]

I used to fly into Las Vegas when I was on the Clark County School Board review team. They instituted some Gates initiatives in big, beautiful schools that were county wide. That’s a tall order because Clark County is one of the largest school systems in the country.

They had to build two schools as transportation costs and the limited number of hours in the day defeated them. The kids wanted to do PE and organized sports in their area schools. (The multicultural kids did not sign up.) The schools opened very, very early, and students were there by seven to participate in team sports and that kind of thing.

We were working with experts from all over the country, but Gates seemed to hold the strings for what we could and couldn’t do based on the fact that he provided the money. We used knowledge network maps, and the feeder elementary schools were theme based.

The schools also had Howard Hughes monies. I visited them often. They had everything. Everything — but the teachers complained about the salaries.

I don’t know for certain who really was running the schools. There were outstanding principals, outstanding teachers, and a support team that traveled to all of the schools. I was assigned to the Gates Schools. Lots of innovations and strategies that we suggested were not allowed through the funding stream.

In one of the high schools, a mix of STEM and the arts seemed to work.

But in such an enlighted environment, one of the principals bragged that his teachers always wore a shirt and tie. He then went on to make other generalizations about lazy teachers. In traveling the U.S., I’ve observed this  pattern of leadership, which I consider teacher abuse. Maybe the abuse is deserved, but not what you would expect to hear on a tour. But it happens a lot.

So I’m not sure about the part a school’s administration plays in creating a school’s image. I was certainly throttled by administators who insisted that I wear a skirt even when doing ecology lessons in a stream. These are leaders who wanted all of the classes to follow the same practices. Many of the teachers on my team not only did not want to do the work, but some were openly defiant. A trip that was scheduled was cancelled by a teacher who just did not follow through with the bus plans. To address the problem, a couple of parents and I drove my class to the site for the project based learning initiatives. You have no idea about the difficulty this caused. My car was vandalized: the tires were slashed and the windows were broken.

We had worked for six weeks on project based learning for the Williamsburg site, and I was not about to let another teacher’s laziness cancel this end-of-the-year trip that students were looking forward to.

Then there are issues related to the teaching of science. I had a science supervisor who wanted every piece of equipment back in the closet by four, every day. So I ended up buying my own resources to allow student to run experiments that lasted over several days. I got the money through grants.

There is often a lot of unrest in schools based on differences in how some people choose to work. They fail to understand the importance of cooperation and team work.

Of course, during NCLB (no child left behind), people were given the option to not teach science. Science is the one area that I got the worst pushback on.

That means teachers did not teach it — and didn’t care. If you think geography, it, too, was and is neglected. From our isolated spaces in the U.S., we look at the world on television but know very little about the different cultures and about the global nation we share.

Education is very different world wide. Very different. Claude Almansi and I were able to work together over the years because we learned from each other. Even when I thought I had most of the tools, I knew to listen to others and learn. So that’s how I got to go to CERN.

In the one school I loved, Larry Cuban was the superintendent and my principal had us organized in teams with helpers. But this successful team teaching approach went when the money went. The loss was immeasurable. The superintendent had an open door policy, and he asked us to evaluate our principals. Where else does that happen? Nowhere else, from what I’ve seen in my many years of teaching and learning.

I have done single classroom teaching, team teaching, gifted and talented work with multiple classes, worked as a supervisor, and every kind of strategy or pedagogy that came down the block. Leadership has been a key, but for me, as a teacher, parental involvement and support as well as partnerships with groups like NASA, NOAA, the Aquarium, Fish and Wildlife, National Geographic, etc. have also been essenatial. This collaborative approach means more work, but it reaps rich rewards.

The interesting thing about leadership is that there are so many variables. Who is the principal as a leader? Is he inclusive? Forward thinking? Smart? Aware in a realistic way of what is really going on in education? Vendor driven? And James and I would also wonder: Who picked the teachers?

When I want to laugh, I remember the principal who called me into the office to berate me about using technology. What a waste of time, he said. And then there was the principal who let a parent call me in for teaching more than plants and animals by including “unknowns” as problems for the classification of living things. Schools with an uninformed or not savvy leader are a total pain.

I worked once in a school of beautiful teachers. I won’t say more. Talented? Maybe — but not much of it showed.

Lots of people are brilliant, but their strength is in only one area of interest. So to me the team approach is the most effective: teachers sharing their strengths in a cooperative community, and assessing outcomes as a group –not as one person isolated from the whole learning environment.

Then there is the problem of understanding children . . .

2 Responses

  1. Like Bonnie, I served under a number of principals who could not possibly serve as instructional leaders. My very first principal, back in 1972, wanted to fill that role, and he told all the new teachers in that large school that he would be handling new teacher staff development himself.

    Our first session was devoted to two topics. The first one made my heart leap. We were told that the district had made a commitment to individualized instruction. We were to evaluate the learning needs of all of our students as individuals and find individual ways to bring each one to achieve at a high level. (Yes, this was 1972.)

    The second part of the presentation was on how we were to use the bell-shaped curve to determine our grades.

    I asked if the second did not contradict the first, and he adopted the familiar “deer in the headlights” pose and said he would get back to us on that. That was the last training session we had, from him or anyone.

    In my teaching career I stumbled through a series of principals who were similarly unable to serve as instructional leaders. It was not until I was part of a research program looking at highly effective schools that I saw my first example of principals as true instructional leaders. It was a revelation.

    In every one of the schools, we interviewed the principals, and then we interviewed the teachers. In all schools, the responses from the principals and the responses from the teachers were nearly completely identical. They were all on the same page.

    One of the principals talked about that. He spoke of “leading from the middle” and “getting everyone to pull from the same end of the rope.” He told us his personal goals for the school. When we talked to the teachers and asked them for their goals, they gave us the very same set of goals, and one of them said, “And we think the principal will go along with all of them.”

  2. Thinking about principals. I worked in New Zealand with a reading company in schools. I found that then , the principal had to have been a teacher. Then, they came up through the ranks. I don’t know if that makes it better, but I have worked with some people who could not teach their way out of a wet paper bag. What do I mean by that?

    There are and have been leaders who do not understand what goes on in the classroom. Recently, I was at a market where the children from the nearby school were allowed to go to the Farmer’s Market.
    I had forgotten the joy that children take in field trips
    and in new experiences. The last year I taught in a school, a regular school, the principal did not believe in field trips for the students who were not gifted and talented. Well, the school was an immigrant school with a large group of students who were just learning to speak English. Many of them , the students had never been to Washington DC, This school was in Arlington , Virginia. Children had no idea of the city a metro stop away. There was nothing I could do as this was her policy.

    Different from the principal who created learning partnerships and excursions as a part of teaching and learning. There are so many places that are open when schools are open and these places are
    museums, parks, so many repositories of knowledge with experts who have great knowledge and expertise.

    At the Dept of Commerce, the education director told us about people teaching with books that had ten year old information, and how her outreach people from NOAA often had ten day old information that they could share with students. Surely this happens.

    While working with NASA my students always felt empowered. While working with National Geographic the students and I again felt empowered.

    Las Vegas schools, the special ones, so wonderful.
    I don’t know how students were selected to be in the special schools , the process. I do know there was a process for being involved. There were themed schools one on oceanography, one that was a specialized air and space elementary school. The schools served as a field trip place and space for other oeople in the county.

    Clark County is unusual in that it is such a very large county.
    There is a school that has specialization in mines, and there is a wonderful field trip and learning experience that school shares with other schools in the district.

    I was inspired by what funds could do to create these learning places. Once I got to create a field trip to the schools for SITE participants and we dialogues with the teachers, leaders and administrators.

    I used to think hard about what influence a specialized program would have. The richness of the school settings was something I could do with resources within a single classroom, but I have never worked in a school with a specialized theme. The schools were beautiful.

    What I learned from that was to create the classroom as a museum site. Seeing the richness of the learning landscapes in those gems of schools, made me want the kids to want to be in school as much as possible because of what i could create and bring in. It was hard work accumulating things, but now with virtual field trips, and with the digital images , and resources,
    I could almost do a a mini classroom landscape.

    Here’s a field trip that I take kids on. To SERC , Smithsonian Estuary Research Center near Annapolic Maryland. Kids from all over the world can go there by
    use of the computer.

    The Commerce Dept and the Smithsonian sites and NASA have science on a sphere. I love teaching earth science, but I am no match for the SANT Hall of Science at the Smithsonian. Teaching plate tectonics and earth science is not so easy talking about it. But the eyes of the students around the sphere , what a way to learn. that, is something I cannot replicate.

    Here is the Sant Hall of Science. It is like magic.

    I learned from the Las Vegas Schools to use learning places and organizations as partners.

    National Geographic taught us to see the places from an interdisciplinary viewpoinrt which involves geography, history, art, books, and specialists ,
    You can find some of the resources at their educational site and the lesson plans at Thinkfinity.
    there is also this resource.

    None of what I am sharing is possible if the administrator is wedded only to the testing. This is innovation. The Clark County Schools are featured in depth on the Edutopia site.

    I learned to replicate excellence from the Clark County Schools. What they had was a set of specialist teachers facilitators who worked across the county.

    Think learning landscape, digital media, well trained teachers with depth in learning content, and support of partner learning organizations.

    I think you can understand that the people who are
    saying that teachers only need to teach two years , and then go on to other occupations. I think to be a skilled teacher in depth content experience is needed.

    Just my opinion.

    Clark County Schools taught me to think beyond the book.

    Those schools were innovative, deep in content, and the teachers had wonderful professional development.

    I only worked in their speciality schools. Here is one.

    So what is the message here? We may not be able to create a Gates School funding, but we can gather resources to teach that create an enriched environment where testing is there, but just a part of the patchwork.
    I only visited the schools on a monthly basis, but did not actually teach in a classroom there. Iwould have loved to teach there.
    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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