How Can My Child Get the Good Teacher?
What parent doesn’t want to sigh in relief as they read their son’s or daughter’s new class assignment and see that their child got the “good teacher”? But not every child can be in that one class each year, so what is a principal to do? Traditionally, we may fill the class roster with a few struggling students who really need that teacher’s expertise, then grant the request to the parents we know are going to give us the most grief about it or who are deeply entrenched in the PTA since they help the school so much. The rest of the students will likely do fine this year, and maybe they’ll get the “good teacher” at the next grade level. That’s the best we can do, right? It’s not that we don’t have love in our hearts for the student whose parent doesn’t speak enough English to request a teacher, the student who registers late because they’ve moved three times in two years, or the student who has five siblings in three schools and is lucky just to get to school at all. We care about each of them, but we have to be realistic when forming classes.
If that’s realistic, then we are perpetuating an educational lottery, and it’s time to change our reality. What if our reality was a school where teams of teachers collaborated and planned lessons together weekly, agreeing on a viable curriculum with all the resource teachers who teach their grade level? What if those resource teachers cotaught that viable curriculum and pushed into the classroom when they supported groups of students so everyone shared a common language and benefited from the classroom management techniques modeled by their colleagues? What if teachers observed their teammates and other teams in the building and reflected together on the experience in order to improve their practice? And what if, instead of answering parent requests for teachers, the administrators purposefully built a culture of collaboration in which teachers didn’t talk about “my kids” and “your kids,” but believed they are all “our kids”? That would change our reality from a couple dozen kids getting the benefit of one good teacher to every student and adult benefiting from a community of learners who share their knowledge, skills, and expertise.
That is the reality in a highly functioning professional learning community. It has been my reality over the last eight years as I joined Principal Brian Butler on the journey of not just one, but two elementary schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, as they transformed from a traditional model of teacher isolation to a PLC. When you apply the three big ideas of a PLC to build a culture of collaboration in which all teachers ensure that every child learns at high levels by collectively focusing on the results, you leave the educational lottery behind. It is hard, and it is messy. It is a journey that takes time. It is not an educational fad that will fade away after its fifteen minutes of fame because it is a process that ensures every student and adult in your school wins. We win when we all become better teachers because we are not left in isolation to do the best we can. The students win when whole teams of teachers constantly analyze their data to improve their learning and provide the supports or extensions they need. And parents win when there is no longer anxiety over any child suffering through a miserable year with “that teacher” instead of the “good teacher.” We all need that win.
Many players on your staff may be eager to work toward that win, but others would rather be left on the bench or standing alone in the outfield. It is hard for any teacher to leave the comfort zone of the way they’ve always done things and to trust their colleagues enough to be vulnerable and share their practices in a transparent way. Some players would rather take their ball and go home than discuss data that shows 76% of their class passed the common assessment while the other classes reached 87%, 89%, and 93%, but if we don’t have that discussion, the score won’t change. In a PLC, you learn it is not the score, but how you react to the score and what you do with it to inform your practice that matters. Building the trust necessary to have those hard conversations is where it starts.
A few years into our PLC journey, one of the teachers who had resisted the transformation said, “Change is hard. Nobody likes it. Even if you don’t see why you need to go through the change and you go into it kicking and screaming, you can find your way if you have people you trust pulling you through to the other side.” We know that trust doesn’t form quickly, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Teachers need time together to collaborate and build that trust. It can be done. Take this school year to look at the structures you have in place to provide collaborative time. Take this school year to look at the culture you have built. Take this school year to purposefully build the capacity of your staff to trust each other enough to engage in the difficult conversations. Take this school year to move farther on your journey as a PLC, and next school year you’ll have a different answer when a parent requests the “good teacher.”