Why flexibility, autonomy, and the right support are the keys to a successful school year.
By Jim Furman
Over the past twenty years, our world has adapted to the presence of social media, burgeoning artificial intelligence, increased social activism, worsening global warming, tragic school shootings, and most recently, a pandemic. Understandably, we’ve spent a lot of time the last two years discussing how much the education profession and the reality of schooling has changed as result of that final hurdle — COVID-19. But if we zoom out past these two years and instead take our lens back two decades, we begin to see a slow but steady pace of change that requires a broader, more permanent shift in how we approach education in this country.
Educators have always been responsible for creating a supportive classroom where kids can flourish academically. At the Danielson Group, preparing educators to successfully assume that responsibility through their own learning, reflection, and collaboration has been at the heart of our work. However, teachers are now increasingly responsible for supporting not only their students’ academic development but also their physical safety, social-emotional wellbeing, and ability to navigate and thrive in a constantly changing, increasingly complex global community.
Teaching began transforming long before COVID-19 and supporting the needs of both educators and students today requires a more fundamental shift.
It is that transformation that prompted us to release a refreshed version of The Framework for Teaching this spring. For district and school leaders across the country, we think there are fundamental changes you can likewise make heading into this school year that will help your schools, educators, and students find success:
- Prioritize the creation of classrooms as inclusive spaces to ensure all students learn. An inclusive approach to education is immediately evident in the classroom of pre-k teacher Dominique Foster, 2022 DC Teacher of the Year. Dominique believes that her students’ voices and ideas should be reflected in the content of the classroom and she writes her lessons, activities, and assessments accordingly. She focuses content on student interests and allows students to explore what lights them up. Dominique has been empowered by the leadership at her school, Friendship Public Charter School, to pursue an educational environment that carefully considers her students’ backgrounds and current interests, and prioritizes their curiosity and ideas. That added context is powerful in helping her build the knowledge and self-esteem of her young scholars and has created a foundation for learning that will propel them through the rest of their academic journey. When educators are empowered and supported to create inclusive spaces tailored specifically to their students, learning accelerates at an unprecedented rate.
- Create more opportunities for flexibility and authenticity to unleash teachers’ fullest potential. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen educators dig deep to show up for their students. They’ve taken on the added responsibility of their students’ physical safety, health, and overall wellness and they’ve adapted countless times to new technologies and realities for their classrooms. They were asked time and again to demonstrate flexibility and they consistently rose to the challenge. For this reason alone, we owe them an opportunity to teach and learn on their own terms. But beyond that, we have seen that better student outcomes are directly tied to a teacher’s ability to leverage flexibility and authenticity in their instruction. We see this playing out in Arizona, where Arizona State University partnered with the local school districts to reimagine the role of the teacher. Faced with a need to both attract and retain talent, and meet the diverse needs of students, they are building teams of teachers who collaborate, innovate, and work collectively to serve the whole child. This innovative approach is centered on the idea of trusting and empowering educators by giving them more space to learn and experiment within their profession.
- Give teachers more autonomy, coupled with the support they need, to increase retention and student outcomes. The education profession was not spared from the great resignation resulting from this pandemic. And yet, the exodus from teaching also began long before March 2020. Attracting and retaining talent in the teaching profession is a much larger conversation but a small piece of mitigating that challenge may tie directly back to promoting educator autonomy. One of the ways we’ve adapted the FFT is to place greater emphasis on the outcomes of a successful classroom and release a lot of the expectations on exactly how an educator gets there. If you focus on the end result and place the ownership in the hands of teachers to decide what will work for them, their classroom, and their students, what you get are not only better student outcomes but happier, more fulfilled professionals. As it turns out, leveraging autonomy may not only be a key strategy in reinvigorating the teaching profession but will also lead to stronger student outcomes.
We all want the same thing – student success. The better we do at fostering a child’s academic development, the brighter the future is for us all. But students’ academic and social-emotional development are at risk if we do not give educators the autonomy and flexibility they need to adapt to our changing world and teach authentically. The world is immeasurably different than it was twenty, or even two, years ago. If we head into this next school year by emphasizing more flexibility and autonomy for educators, we will create environments where both students and educators can thrive.