To change education, start talking to effective teachers

By Amanda Hathaway

It has always been a dream of mine to be interviewed as an expert on National Public Radio. I imagine the host asking me questions about math education and having the opportunity to share my years of experience with students, curriculum, and classroom strategies. I haven’t received a call from NPR, not yet anyway. And at times, I find myself wondering if I even qualify as an education “expert.” I am public school math teacher with over ten years of experience licensed in mathematics, special education, and English language learners. I have a graduate degree in education from Harvard University. I seek out a myriad of professional development opportunities and keep up with the latest research. Yet it is rare for anyone to ask me what I think about improving math education or education in general.

I’m guessing that my situation as a closet wannabe expert teacher is not unique. Day in and day out, teachers hone their craft behind closed doors. When other adults are in their classrooms, it’s usually to observe teachers for evaluation purposes, not necessarily to examine best practices or seek teacher input on an educational issue. Many of the teachers I know don’t have much time for a phone call with NPR anyway. One close friend works every Friday night to prepare her lessons for the following week. Another spends all day Sunday preparing. On a recent pair of snow days in Boston, the majority of teachers I spoke with spent at least one of those “days off” catching up on work. Teachers are perpetually busy, constantly engaged in a repetitive cycle of action verbs: prep, teach, engage, motivate, reflect, communicate, troubleshoot, praise, discipline, learn, grade, assess. In addition, teachers are the last to learn about the latest education reforms which generally trickle down to them from above. They may be asked and evaluated on how and when they implement cognitively-demanding tasks or how their course aligns to the Common Core standards. The focus for the year may be on creating a trauma-sensitive environment, or writing across the curriculum. All of these reforms are worthy concepts and strategies, but often implemented without much teacher input or professional development that is not sustained for more than one school year.

What then is an experienced teacher to do? Thankfully, I discovered a few organizations that value teacher experience, insights, and opinions. For the past two years, I have been working with Teach Plus, a national organization committed to keeping highly effective teachers in the classroom. With Teach Plus and a colleague of mine, I have developed three different professional development courses centering around implementing effective math tasks and encouraging student discourse in the classroom. I was thrilled to read in our course evaluations that teachers who enrolled in our courses found them engaging and useful to their practice. Some even commented that they were beginning to see changes and results in their students’ learning. I felt proud to be able to share some of the best practices I have learned, and to find people listening to what I had to say about math teaching.

This fall, I found another opportunity to give my professional opinion. I was selected to be a Math Fellow with Edvestors, a non-profit committed to driving change in urban school and improving student achievement in Boston. The Math Fellows meet at least once a month and divide into working groups to tackle problems we identify in math education in Boston. We are tasked to “dream big, and implement practically.” It is an honor to work with other accomplished math teachers across the city and really think through ways to change math achievement for our students. I find it a relief to step back from my day-to-day teaching practice (at least for a few hours) and focus on big picture issues and solutions with a group of hardworking professionals.

I feel grateful to have found opportunities to share my opinions, successes, and challenges as a public school teacher. Organizations like Teach Plus and Edvestors keep teachers teaching by valuing them as the experts they are in their field. Too often, these opportunities occur outside of our classrooms and schools. To truly implement effective change in education, we must value and treat teachers as professionals. If you want to change education, start by asking a teacher his or her opinion. As for me, I’m still waiting for my call from NPR.

Amanda Hathaway teaches high school math at William J. Ostiguy High School, a small alternative Boston Public School for students with substance abuse issues. She is a Teach Plus TLPL Teacher Leader.

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