Who Taught Superman?
Who Taught Superman?
By Adam Strom, Director of Content Development, Facing History and Ourselves
Do you remember the names of the best teachers you ever had? How did they get to be good? What do you think kept them going year after year? What would it take to have more teachers like this? The answers to these questions are at the heart of our current debate about how to improve our schools.
Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, which opened nationally this week, puts a stark face on the consequences of not having a sufficient supply of highly effective teachers. Through sharing the constrained choices of five families, the film has catalyzed enormous interest and concern across the country. The stakes of not providing high quality education are high—indeed they are at the heart of the survival of our democracy. Yet, with the exclusive focus on reformers working outside of conventional public schools, viewers might leave the theater without hope for the 95,000 plus schools that are currently serving our nation’s children.
Having worked for the past two decades at Facing History and Ourselves, an international nonprofit organization that has supported more than 29,000 teachers and accelerated the academic and civic achievement of 20 million students over the last 35 years, I have seen the impact that engaged teachers have on the lives of young people. Indeed, numerous researchers understand that improving teacher quality is the most powerful way to create better schools.
How do you improve teacher quality? The simple, yet most important, lesson we’ve learned is that teachers are professionals and we need to value their development. Good teachers are lifelong learners. Doctors go on grand rounds to update their practice. Teachers need those same opportunities. We believe that creating effective teachers includes three best practices.
Good teachers know how to engage students with relevant and rigorous resources. When students are interested, they learn more. Sadly, too many textbooks are boring. Instead of asking big questions and having students apply what they’ve learned, too many textbooks emphasize basic recall.
Equally important is high-quality, ongoing professional development. Teacher education has to go beyond classes in teaching methods or afternoon workshops on new instructional programs. The professional development practices most likely to have impact must include not just listening but also active learning where teachers struggle with content and ideas. Teachers also need mentors who can provide both positive and critical feedback—colleagues they can turn to as they work to take the big ideas from their resources and professional development and craft them into classroom lessons. This mentoring and continual follow-through with teachers is one of the hallmarks of the Facing History approach.
Finally, if we are to have good schools and great teachers in every classroom, we cannot think about classrooms in isolation. Teachers themselves need to be part of a learning community, whether based within their own school, or better yet, within a larger network such as Facing History. During the year, when teachers in our network gather, they not only learn proven strategies from their peers, they connect with a larger vision of their role as educators of the future leaders of our world.
These three principles are the cornerstone of Facing History’s work. Their value was recently confirmed by a randomized experimental design study demonstrating that our approach helps to create effective teachers who improve their students’ academic achievement and civic learning. Having college and workforce-ready graduates is not only good for our economy; it is essential for society.
Research and data show us that the challenge we face is keeping good teachers in the classroom and helping all teachers, regardless of the kind of school in which they teach, become more effective. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, during the next four years, up to one-third of teachers and administrators in the U.S. may leave the profession or retire. By 2014, up to one million teaching positions will be filled by new teachers. Too many of the educational solutions that have captured the nation’s attention sound good but are unproven or have been shown to have mixed results. To prepare our students to capitalize on the challenges and opportunities they’ll face in our globalized world, we have to equip the broadest base of teachers to create classrooms that engage students to the highest levels of achievement. With that focus, students and parents won’t have to keep waiting for Superman.
Adam Strom is Director of Content Development at Facing History and Ourselves.
Facing History and Ourselves delivers classroom strategies, resources and lessons that inspire young people to take responsibility for their world. Facing History’s effectiveness in supporting teachers and promoting students’ academic development and civic learning has been demonstrated in more than 90 studies by independent researchers and Facing History evaluators. www.facinghistory.org