Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often find ourselves telling them something quite different: “The answers are in the room.”
Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great educators know works well.
I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.
Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”
Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of hooey.”
As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”
These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).
In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.
What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?
Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, he wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.