True voice is unlimited power: detail from student work at High Tech Middle School in San Diego. (Photo Credit: Jacqueline Nader/ Hewlett Foundation)
These days, teachers are often treated as both the cause of all our problems and their solution, responsible for everything from alleviating poverty to the grades on an individual student’s report card. If you’re a parent who has seen your child thrive because of one special teacher—or if you can remember what your favorite teacher meant to you when you were growing up—you’ll know what I mean when I say that teachers have incredible power. They can ignite in their students a love of learning, help them to believe in themselves, and even make them feel safe and loved. They are the heart and soul of our schools.
At the same time, if you read the news, you’ll know that teachers are criticized constantly for the shortcomings of our education system and the less-than-perfect test scores of our students. Even if we set aside the articles that paint teachers in the worst light, we still can’t escape the many headlines about how we need to “build better teachers” or teach teachers how to do things they already strive to do every day—things like instilling in their students a sense of their own self-worth or teaching them values like teamwork and perseverance.
Working at a foundation, it’s easy to fall into a constant search for the right programs to ‘fix the problem.’ If you think that teachers aren’t motivated enough, the question becomes ‘how do we incentivize them?’ If you think they don’t know enough, the question is ‘how do we train them?’ If you think they’re not working hard enough, the question is ‘how do we evaluate them and hold them accountable?’
What if they don’t lack motivation, or knowledge, or high stakes? What if they lack time? What if they lack voice?
One of my good friends, a teacher in Queens, NY, said something to me during her first year of teaching that I’ll never forget, because it was so clear how responsible she felt for every student in her class. “What if I can’t teach them 5th grade math?” she said. “If I don’t teach it to them, no one will. And they won’t be able to learn 6th grade math or high school math, because the concepts build over time. It will be my fault that they can’t do math.” It didn’t matter to her that many of her students were many grade levels behind before they ever got to her class. It was her job to help them succeed. She felt the stakes keenly, and didn’t lack for motivation, or for knowledge of how to be a good teacher.
What she did lack, in that first year, was time—she worked twelve-hour days, and it wasn’t enough. And she lacked voice—her principal was rarely available to meet with her; she wasn’t assigned a mentor when she began the year; and the teachers at her school didn’t interact much with each other. It was very hard for her to grow as a teacher that year, because she had such little support.
That’s just one story, of course, but, over the last few months, I have had the honor to have long conversations with several teachers, and I keep hearing the same things. They often work late into the night, preparing lessons and trying to find the materials that will set off light bulbs in their students’ heads. They’re constantly thinking of ways to improve their craft. I have never met a teacher that didn’t care about his students or that wasn’t seeking out new ways to help them learn. There are always exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of teachers are working hard to teach their students not only subject matter, but also creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, citizenship…and the list goes on.
But they’re doing so with varying degrees of support and, often, very little voice. They talk about needing more time with mentors, principals, and fellow teachers to co-develop lessons and talk through challenges or new ideas. They aren’t usually able to shape their own professional development or asked what might be most helpful before being shuffled through required trainings or communities of practice.
There are, of course, some schools, districts, and organizations that are striving to offer teachers the support and voice that they need. One organization, in particular, comes to mind: Gooru—one of our grantees and a strong partner. Their website has 16 million educational resources that teachers can compile into “collections” and powerful analytic tools to track student progress, both of which are impressive. But the way they operate is what I think makes them truly noteworthy.
The Founder and CEO of Gooru, Prasad Ram (aka Pram), used to work at Google as an engineer—he has never been a classroom teacher. For him, that lack of personal experience is a constant reminder to stay humble. That means asking teachers what they need, instead of telling them what to do.
Gooru’s tools give teachers more time with their students, and students more time with materials that motivate them. One teacher explained to me that, while her students are working through a Gooru collection, she can pull a small group of high- or low-performing students aside to personalize their lesson. Another teacher explained that, for one day a week, her students use Gooru to go deeper into a particular subject to bring the basic concepts in their textbooks to life.
More powerful still, Gooru gives teachers voice. Pram didn’t just build a website and roll it out. Instead, he hosts ‘design jam sessions,’ where he asks teachers what they envision for these tools. Many of them have a direct line to one of his engineers, so they can ask for new features and functions, and then they are actually told whether those features can be developed and how long it will take. The Gooru website is constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of teachers. As Pram puts it, it is "created by teachers, built by engineers."
The real beauty of Gooru, at least for me, is it’s philosophy: that teachers are intrinsically motivated and already know what it is they need to do their best. That’s a point of view that many of us interested in education reform would do well to hear.
None of this is to say that teacher training, incentives, and evaluation methods don’t matter—they do. It’s just a reminder that, whenever a school or an organization is developing a new tool or training or incentive (or whenever a foundation is funding a new program, for that matter), we have a lot to learn from the teachers themselves. It’s time we start to listen more closely to what teachers are asking for loud and clear—starting with support, time, and, most importantly, voice.