Reading about the Bush Administration’s plans to force teachers to transfer to troubled schools left me remembering my neighborhood school, Northwoods Elementary. Northwoods was a place where I felt safe, where my classmates were the same year after year and where parents were actively involved as tutors and PTA volunteers. It was a place that neighbors could rally around and come together for events, building a sense of unity that spread across subdivisions and throughout our community.
The teachers at Northwoods were nothing short of outstanding. I remember being involved in creative activities designed by Mr. Nowak and Mr. Tribula. Mr. Earl, who was my band teacher, challenged me time and again. Our school was consistently recognized for academic success because of the commitment of our teachers to continual growth, to one another and to their students.
There can be no question that the teachers of Northwoods were a significant factor in the success that the children of our community went on to experience. Their accomplishment provided the foundation for ours. In that sense, I understand the intent behind plans whose final goal is to guarantee that every child has the opportunity to experience a highly accomplished teacher.
But forced transfers to high poverty schools is yet another simplistic solution to a complex educational problem. Until we make the serious investments necessary to restructure schools of poverty as places where accomplished teachers want to teach, we will fail in an endeavor that is at once well-intentioned and essential.
We need to begin by ensuring that our highest needs schools are led by our most accomplished administrators. When principals work to develop a positive relationship with their faculties, the entire school benefits from the sense of collegiality. As researcher Linda Darling-Hammond has written, effective school leadership has a "magnetic" effect, attracting accomplished teachers who are searching for environments that will allow them to reach their peak performance level. Data from the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey supports Darling-Hammond’s assertions–fully 30% of NC teachers cite school leadership as a significant factor in their decision to stay or to leave their current buildings.
We can also provide accomplished teachers with the professional flexibility to do what it is that they do best: identify needs and then design instruction tailored for the students in their classrooms. Rigid attempts to control the work of teachers in high-needs schools chase away motivated educators who thrive on the mental creativity of the act of teaching. As one of my colleagues recently wrote, "If I’m allowed to utilize my teaching expertise–to draw from what it is that I know will engage and stimulate my students–then students will achieve at levels that no one could dream of. It is only when I’m hampered that I can’t do what it is that I do best."
We can provide additional time and training to teachers in our highest needs schools and communities. Meeting the academic and social demands of children living in poverty requires a set of skills that few educators–regardless of level of experience–are prepared for. Opportunities to engage in high quality, teacher driven professional development during the course of the school day and year will help to ensure that teachers in high needs communities experience success with economically and culturally diverse student populations.
Finally, we can reconsider the use of external accountability models that result in schools of poverty being labeled "failures" in the eyes of the community. We do little to emotionally reward teachers who work in high needs buildings–relying instead on their altruism as a retention strategy–and current accountability systems are loaded in favor of teachers in less demanding schools. Such systems only serve to demoralize teachers and to discourage them from accepting difficult assignments.
Looking back, I’m challenged by my neighborhood school experience. Sometimes I wonder, "Was I successful only because my parents were able to move into the right home in the right neighborhood with the right school?" Neighborhood schools worked for my family, but who did they fail? Wouldn’t every parent–if they could–have chosen to move into my neighborhood.
What’s more, I often feel a sense of shame for having spent the majority of my career working in affluent suburban schools. My students have every advantage—and while I firmly believe that they deserve accomplished teachers as well, I know that I have, in a sense, avoided the children who need me the most.
But some part of me believes that the real shame belongs to educational decision makers who fail to commit energies and resources to addressing what is a very real and very complex problem. We have a responsibility to all children…and to meet that responsibility, we must be able to guarantee that students of poverty have access to our most accomplished educators.
Meeting that responsibility, however, requires more that simply reworking collective bargaining agreements to allow for forcible transfers of senior teachers to troubled schools.