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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Advice to Teachers and Policymakers

Larry Ferlazzo, a Sacramento (CA) high school English/social studies teacher and avid blogger, interviewed me over a decade ago. He asked me about the advice I would give teachers, policymakers, and large foundations seeking school and teacher improvement.

The advice I offered then to teachers, policymakers, and donors came largely from my 14 years as a high school history teacher in urban schools, seven years I spent as a district superintendent, 20 years of teaching and research I had done at Stanford University, and since after retiring from the faculty.

I have updated and expanded that earlier post. The advice I gave then is, in my opinion, still apt for teachers, policymakers, and foundation officials in 2022.

If you were going to offer teachers three key pieces of advice that you think might help them to stay in the profession longer and be more effective educators, what would they be?

1. Re-pot yourself every few years.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. When teaching you spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that you have accumulated over the years on your students. Because of that draining of your capital, for yourself and your future students you need to re-invest in yourself by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little growth, even death.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions. For educational policymakers, re-potting may mean a return to teaching for a school year or seeking a similar post in another district, or even taking a short paid or unpaid leave of absence.

Effectiveness in every helping profession requires developing relationships with those served, be they clients, patients, parishioners, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth prepare the soil for learning. Such work, over time, drains one’s energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

2. Take intellectual risks.

Because teaching is repetitive work—as is doctoring, lawyering, and engineering—a certain monotony creeps in over years. Sure, the students each year differ and they add the spice of unpredictability to what occurs in classrooms but inevitably daily routines become familiar and taken for granted. Altering predictable classroom routines, introducing new subject matter, experimenting with different time schedules for activities, trying out new technologies to enhance student learning—all are instances of taking risks.

Yes, failure occur but teaching well means accepting that from time to time falling on one’s face is not a tragedy but—you guessed it—an opportunity to learn how to do the task better next time around. Losing the will to take intellectual risks is a telltale sign that teaching fatigue has set in and the routines of teaching have triumphed.

3. Speak out.

There are so many reasons why teachers and policymakers do not speak out about teaching, student learning, school procedures and district policies. From fear of retaliation to sheer exhaustion at the end of the day to working at another job or taking graduate courses to caring for family and friends to inexperience in writing or speaking publicly—all are reasons teachers and district administrators give for letting others speak for them.

What many educators forget or underestimate is the credibility that they have with parents, voters, and students when they do speak out about teaching, learning, school policies, and leadership. I read many teacher blogs and applaud them for taking this avenue to express themselves. More teachers and policymakers need to speak out on the issues and the daily life that they experience. Even if they are members of a union. Being a union member is, of course, important but no teacher or policymaker can depend upon a union or professional association to speak for them.

So voicing publicly one’s thoughts about teaching, learning, school routines, policy struggles, and, yes, even school politics is a way of re-potting one’s self and taking intellectual risks.

What advice would you offer philanthropic foundations seeking improved schooling?

*Before recommending any reform policy or making a grant aimed at altering teacher behavior in classrooms or district policies, include an historical impact statement (no longer than two single-spaced pages) of earlier similar reforms similar to what is being proposed (e.g., what happened to those reforms? Why did they succeed? Fail? What conditions were in place or missing? )

*Publicly describe the theory of change (or action) that is embedded in any recommended policy.

*Recommend only those policies (and grants) aimed at changing teachers and classroom practices that you, as reformers, would want teachers of your children and grand-children to do in their classrooms.

*Dial back hyped policy talk about what a new policy will achieve for teachers, students, and the larger society (e.g., online instruction for K-12, new curriculum standards, authentic assessment, charter schools). Over-promising results while under-estimating the tough difficulties superintendents, principals, and teachers face in implementing new policies is the dominant pattern that reformers have followed for over a century. Speaking honestly, directly, and publicly about what a new policy aimed at teachers and district policymakers can and cannot do would not only be refreshing but give credibility to proposed policies and grants.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has publish...