True Grit: To Appreciate Teachers, Learn From Their Efforts

Everyone knows teachers work hard, but do we ever take enough time to truly recognize the talents and achievements of our educators? Each year, Teacher Appreciation Week offers us an opportunity to look at the impact and leadership of our teachers, and let them know that their talents and achievements are valued and worth sharing.

For the second year in a row, Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles has released its annual "True Grit" report on learning from the best ideas and practices used at diverse district and public charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Focusing on schools that showed a significant growth of 40 points or more in data published by the Academic Performance Index (API), a database used to measure school performance across California, we've set out to spotlight the work teachers are doing to drive improvement. It isn't enough to celebrate and thank teachers; we want to dig into how they make school growth possible.

E4E-Los Angeles team members visited all of the 29 schools featured in this year's report, and held focus groups with more than 300 teachers, administrators and other school-site personnel. Our aim was to unearth the strategies used to elevate expectations, morale, and performance at these schools. This year, according to our conversations, the top factor toward improved student performance was dynamic use of data, followed by increased collaboration, with school culture ranked third.

It isn't easy to improve on these measures, with limited budgets and busy schedules. Yet teachers throughout LAUSD have done just that through hard work and creativity.

Teachers are finding that they need timely, organized, and dynamic data to help their students. That's why kindergarten teacher Adriana Acero and her colleagues at Manhattan Place Elementary came together at the start of the year to develop their own metrics for data collection throughout the year.

Teachers know they must work smarter together to achieve the best possible outcomes. So David Hessel, a fourth grade teacher at Magnolia Avenue Elementary School, helped start a monthly Saturday school where teachers all pitch in to help struggling students.

Teachers are seeking a greater commitment to school climate than ever before, and they're looking at new and creative solutions to make curricula work for their students. Jon Stewart of Jack London Community Day School is bringing personal financial literacy into his algebra class, while a science teacher at his school is working on a new program around urban gardening.

Reading this small sample of case studies makes clear that these factors often go hand in hand -- dynamic data can help reflect on school climate, and improvements in collaboration make the school climate stronger. No matter what order they're taken in, together or alone, the teachers whose students are succeeding are teachers taking innovative approaches, never letting the status quo be good enough.

Last Thursday, we honored creative teachers in our third annual True Grit gala. Talking to people there, we've started to see the challenges that will surely help shape next year's report, as well as the new and creative strategies that are being leveraged to meet them.

In many ways, California teachers are at the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the transition to the Common Core State Standards and ongoing focus on the School Climate Bill of Rights, the way we think about student performance is changing. The API as used in this report will never exist again. But the strategies and best practices our teachers are using to move students forward, captured in this True Grit report, remain the same. If we truly appreciate the work that our teachers do on behalf of their students, we owe it to them to listen.