A New Paradigm

As I was reading the opinion piece “Keep the ‘American Dream’ Alive,” Jan. 9, I recognized the prevalent teacher assumption that parents are at fault for much of the low achievement in our classrooms. I understood the sentiment because I held the same assumption/excuse for more than 25 of my 34 years as a teacher and administrator.

In this response to the article, I am going to ask teachers and administrators to suspend this excuse and the proposition that ‘outside the classroom factors account for student under-achievement.’ I request this not because they have no validity. I ask this because these assumptions give us an excuse to not improve our teaching craft.

 Teacher conversations that I have observed and participated in (usually in the staff lunch room, but also in faculty meetings) go something like this: If only the parents would make the children do their home work; if only the parents/administrators would support me in classroom discipline; if only the district would give me more supplies; if only the teacher at the previous school had done their job; if only the state would give us more money, etc. What you do not hear in these conversations is any discussion of craft knowledge, i.e., methods to improve classroom teacher performance.

When I went into administration after 28 years of teaching, my real professional education began. I was given the job of developing a program for students who had failed the eighth grade and were not promoted into high school. Sixty percent of these student were in some form of foster care. Nearly 100 percent were designated At-Risk. Reading levels were from second to sixth grade for most students. Most of our students had minimal or no support at home.

It quickly become apparent that traditional assumptions regarding student achievement would not work for these students. They in fact were unsuccessful in traditional school and “more of the same” would not be effective. We needed to reevaluate our assumptions, and our thinking about classroom instruction and school interventions.

Our new model needed to ignore what we could not directly control and concentrate on what we could, that is, ‘we had to concentrate our energy exclusively on what happens in the classroom and make no excuses.’ My staff and I found that rather than helping our students, our students were helping us build a new paradigm, a paradigm in which we concentrate on what we had the power to control and ignore those factors over which we had little or no control.

What would accepting this new paradigm look like at a traditional high school? First, teachers/staff would stop participating in negative conversations with colleagues.

Second, teachers/staff would start investing in their craft by going back to school, and/or reading. I recommend Results NOW by Mike Schmoker, Classroom Instruction that works by Robert Marzano, et. al., and The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. A book club would develop and many of the ideas discussed would be implemented in the classroom. Third, teachers would participate in department conversations comparing results (weekly and monthly results, not yearly). They would start visiting each other’s classroom to find new strategies and give support.

Finally, teachers/staff would make it a policy to call parents each night to talk to them about their child. They do not always discuss behavior, but ask the parent to tell them something they want the teacher to know about their son or daughter, and then act upon this information. Teachers would make a scientific study to see if taking an interest in a student doesn’t change the childs’ behavior in class and the parents’ support at home. They would publish the results.

In other words they would stop looking at things as problems and start looking at them as opportunities to learn and improve.

What I am humbly recommending is that teachers suspend worry about factors outside the classroom and concentrate, for their own mental health, on what they have control over, their classroom. Reject the archetype that “if something outside the classroom changes, student achievement will improve.” Stop giving your personal power to someone else. Reclaim your power and concentrate on what you have control over, your classroom.

Please understand that I am in no way criticizing the teacher who wrote this article. I recognize him and identify with his desire to help students. I only ask that he and the other teachers who are reading this response consider my proposition and take back their power.

Fred Noel is a former teacher and administrator. He lives in Alameda.