I have been a teacher for 37 years and throughout my career I have developed a huge appreciation for the importance of hard work, persistence and focus. It is incredible what individuals or groups can accomplish through consistent and steadfast effort, regardless of the task.
Along with working harder, working smarter is also required to achieve the best outcomes possible. Working smarter typically entails looking to others for new ideas and inspiration. As teachers, we are responsible for creating a positive environment that encourages not only hard work but also open mindedness and collaboration to assure that our students reach their full potential.
Given the importance of creating a positive and collaborative environment for learning and success, it is puzzling and disheartening to see some of the education reform policies currently emanating from many state capitals, including Nashville. A number of these policies, such as changes to licensure and tenure, are based on the assumption that threats and punitive actions directed at teachers will somehow lead to higher test scores and better schools. It is evident that any improvement plan built on “sticks” is doomed from the beginning. For any plan to succeed it must be built on positive actions that bring people together. This assertion is not based on idealism but on the reality of the interconnected world that we live in today.
We can all agree that our schools need reform. Policy makers have the right, and duty, to demand improvement from all aspects of public education, including teacher quality and accountability. Our students deserve a world-class education and our country’s economic future depends on it. However, the missing piece in education reform is meaningful cooperation among all stakeholders including teachers, administrators and policy makers. Success can only be achieved by uniting the efforts of knowledgeable, creative and passionate participants around common goals. Effective collaboration is behind the innovation that we see in various endeavors and fields today. It can also be the driving force in creating better schools. For policies to be successful they will need buy-in from everyone, including teachers.
I believe that accountability and collaboration are both important components of education reform. Economists define individual experience, knowledge and skills as “human capital.” Human capital is an important factor in the education reform conversation as every educator has room for improvement. But equally important is the concept of “social capital” or the relationships that exist among teachers and administrators. The best way to increase social capital is through meaningful and intentional collaboration. The collective knowledge of the teachers in our schools and districts is an incredible resource that all educators need to access. If we want to improve and gain new instructional skills, we are surrounded by colleagues who have the expertise to help. Teachers should not be waiting for the education establishment to mandate our efforts toward reform and improvement while we passively stand by. We should be responsible for not only improving our own practice but also for the development of collaborative efforts to improve the teaching of our colleagues. It is the charge of teachers, administrators and policy makers to develop an ecosystem that facilitates cooperation, collaboration and innovation. For education reform to advance and for our students to flourish, we need to set a standard that encourages growth in both human and social capital in our schools.
I have no doubt that education policy makers have good intentions. We all want better schools for our students. However, good intentions are not enough. To truly and permanently transform our schools we need enlightened policies to enable effective actions that will result in the ultimate goal: great schools for all students. We have to work harder and smarter. When it comes to policy all stakeholders, including teachers, must have a place at the table. Together we need to pursue pragmatic and nonpartisan solutions to the myriad of challenges related to education reform. Otherwise valuable time, money and energy will be wasted and students will be denied the best education possible to which they are entitled.
Curtis Tipton is a teacher with Hamblen County Schools and is the author of the book Teacher To Teacher: Vision. Connection. Renewal.