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Shanker Blog: Allied Around Student Success

I see multiple stories published daily about the fragile state of the teaching profession and educators themselves. There is also concerning anecdotal evidence suggesting that the work of other school-related professionals, such as bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers, is also suffering due to stress from the pandemic, which may also be contributing to turnover and educator shortages. What can be most productive at this point would be to refocus on and rebuild the trust between families and educators to help promote student learning.

One thing the adults (and the students) in our schools don’t need right now is an opportunistic wedge being driven between the most natural allies in the cause of student success: families and educators. Rather than focus on problem-solving and communication, there are many stories that are focused on pitting educators and families against each other over teaching practices and materials, which is increasing the stress of teaching and learning just about every day.

I’m not just talking about late-in-the-game advertisements during the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. The work to create distrust between these longstanding partners—educators and parents—rather than nurture communication and collaboration, goes back months and has presented itself in state houses across the country. Leading the effort are state laws that create a climate of shoot-first ask-questions-later when it comes to perceived instructional transgressions. Books are being banned rather than discussed in Texas. The Tennessee Department of Education has instituted emergency rules for financially penalizing districts, and  disciplining or reporting teachers violating  a law of 14 concepts deemed too contentious by the legislature. Similarly, the New Hampshire Department of Education has created an online form to collect complaints about teachers from parents and students. A growing number of states have introduced or passed laws similar to these in 2021, while other states have plans to introduce similar measures in future legislative sessions.

Leading from a point of mistrust isn’t actually leading at all. These new laws and measures are superseding existing processes that include educator and community input and replacing them with top-down laws that cut out educators and even pit them against their communities. That is, there are existing processes for making these decisions that are better, more deliberate, less top-down, and more collaborative which draw on multiple sources of expertise.  While elected officials spend time micro-managing ghost lessons, they could be investing in improving family and school relationships and committing to the accountability already built into our educational systems.

Multiple layers of teaching accountability already exist in all states. First, when a teacher is licensed in a state, that teacher agrees to abide by a code of ethics, which is tailored to that state and outlines a commitment to act in the best interest of students, including working in the community. In addition, a teaching license comes with the responsibility to adhere to academic standards in each subject area. These standards are set by the state, most often with a process for regular review and revision, including the input of the state’s educators, families, students, and community members. This layer of accountability provides clear subject matter for teachers, including review processes that regularly create an opportunity for communities to recommend adjustments for new learning. Providing high quality professional development, as well as the time for that professional learning, would be a productive way for legislators to invest in an existing layer of accountability, rather than creating mistrust through these recent laws.

As of 2019, 34 states require “objective” measures of student learning in teacher evaluations (although many have been suspended because of COVID-19). Most states also require in-class teacher observations. Additional layers of accountability have also long existed around the materials and subjects a teacher will use to teach to their state’s academic standards. For example, once a teacher has learned the state academic standards they are responsible for, they still have to learn what textbook has been adopted to facilitate learning. (Textbook adoption and curriculum design are usually out of most teachers’ control, unless they have been selected to participate in textbook adoption or curriculum design committee work as a representative.)

In addition to these layers of accountability, some of the most effective points of trust are also the most local and should be prioritized, especially now. Teachers are expected to participate in parent/teacher conferences throughout the year, as well as be in regular communication with students and families. In addition to these traditional conferences, schools also regularly create celebrations, schedule music concerts or theater performances, or invite families to curriculum nights to learn more about reading, math, social studies, and science work. These all serve as formal and informal opportunities for families to question educators and administrators, learn more about and provide feedback on lessons, the school climate, and priorities for student learning. More so, they serve as opportunities to build relationships with each other, so families and educators can turn to each other, rather than an anonymous link on a department of education webpage, if a concern is found. Prioritizing relationship-building between the adults in a student’s life, and between students and educators, strengthens student learning.

The most important trust point for student academic growth also happens to be the most effective. Timely and high-quality feedback a student receives from a teacher has been shown to successfully improve student learning. Meetings between parents and educators can also provide feedback for families to help their children and learn about the progress a student is making. If legislators wanted to improve teaching and learning conditions, they should invest in meaningful time for educators to meet with parents and invest in the time and conditions for effective student communication—such as reasonable class sizes and the up-to-date research on effective communication and feedback—rather than funding portals for criticism.  Teachers have many ways of collaborating with families, which should be amplified and assisted. These promising practices provide a road map to ameliorate the stress both educators and families are feeling during the pandemic.

When I was president of my local teacher’s union I worked with parents and families frequently. I heard Randi Weingarten tell a story of co-writing contract language to improve a school community with parents, and then sharing the negotiating table with parents to successfully negotiate that language. Following her lead, I worked with parents and families to negotiate the inclusion of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Program and Academic Parent-Teacher Teams, both of which build trust between the adults who are the most invested in student success: parents who care deeply about their children, and teachers who want students to succeed so much they’ve made it their day job.

Investing in these effective trust points, rather than sowing mistrust and division, creates stronger teaching and learning conditions and stronger relationships with educators and families—just the conditions our students need to succeed. Nurturing and strengthening the relationships among educators, students, and their families will also help ameliorate the stress our educators, our students, and our families are under during these uncertain times. Knowing that communication is prioritized can strengthen student learning at a time when everyone is concerned with interrupted learning during the pandemic. And it can alleviate misunderstandings at a time when elected officials are trying to pick fights between educators and parents, instead of creating an atmosphere for working together for student success.

As we address improvements to learning during the pandemic, we need to keep in mind that both teaching and parenting can feel pretty lonely these days. Strengthening family and educator relationships improve student performance in the long run and, during this stressful time, can provide a conduit for empathy and a mutually supportive and constructive path forward.

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Mary Cathryn Ricker

Mary Cathryn Ricker is the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute. She is a National Board Certified middle school English/language arts teacher who h...