To prepare kids for a changing economy, invest in great teaching and more of it

By Mike Feinberg (guest column)
KIPP teacher with students

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When it comes to preparing students for the future, teachers today have a tough task. In the predictable economy of the past, educators could get kids ready for a job that would last their whole lives, whether it was working in a factory or being a family doctor. But with the advent of robotics, artificial intelligence, and more, there is no roadmap for what jobs will look like 10 or 20 years from now. That’s why the role of classroom teachers must evolve to keep pace with the changes in the global economy and society. It’s crucial because teachers are the key to the quality of any school.

As technology continues to advance, maybe someday we will simply ‘hologram’ great teachers to where they are needed. Until then, we need to ensure that schools have top-notch teachers in every classroom who are ready to meet the needs of today’s learners.

Rather than just learning facts and information, young people need to gain skills in problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity so they can work with others, solve challenges, and fluidly adapt to a changing job market. For KIPP, this means we have to recruit strong prospective teachers and make sure they work continuously to improve their instructional skills.

The process starts with finding excellent teachers for KIPP schools. KIPP often gets a lot of interest from prospective teachers for open positions (last year in KIPP Houston we had over 2,000 applications for 250 openings); but the reality is that many of these candidates do not have what it will take to help all students succeed.

That’s because mastering the teaching cycle is important, but subject area knowledge is now an equal prerequisite for teachers. And the challenge is that while many educators have one or the other, you need both to create a great teacher. We call this the ‘art and science’ of teaching.

How can schools cultivate a pipeline of people who bring these two elements to the classroom? We believe subject-area expertise is learned in college, while instructional expertise is best gained in an apprenticeship with support from practicing master teachers. So while KIPP will always rely on traditional teacher preparation programs, we also draw on alternatives that open new avenues for finding teachers.

KIPP has had a long relationship with Teach For America (TFA), one of the best known alternative pathways to education (I’m a proud alum of TFA, as is KIPP’s co-founder, Dave Levin). And KIPP also helped start The Relay Graduate School of Education, which is a national program that combines the best of practice and theory-based preparation to equip new teachers to excel in both public charter and district schools.

But we can’t just prepare and hire teachers; we must also help them stay current with best practices, especially in fast-moving areas such as the use of technology in the classroom. The question is, how do we incentivize teachers to keep learning? In KIPP schools, there are three ways that we motivate teachers to never stop improving their practice.

The first is a shared belief that all students can learn to high standards, coupled with a school culture that brings this belief into action. We often say that education is 51 percent character and 49 percent academics. This means that we strive to not only help our students learn key character traits like grit, resiliency, and appreciation, but also to cultivate an organizational ethos that brings out the best in our teachers.  As James Baldwin wrote, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

The second is collaboration. KIPP teachers do not work in isolation, but instead are part of a learning collaborative along with other teachers in the same grade level or subject area. Learning collaborative groups have structured time regularly to share lesson plans, demonstrate new instructional strategies, and discuss how to teach the curriculum.

The third is observation and feedback. KIPP schools have trained instructional coaches who conduct classroom observations, videotape teachers, and provide targeted feedback. And we set up our administrative teams so KIPP school leaders can spend 75 percent of their time on leading instructional growth as their first priority.

Some people think teaching is a calling, but I have seen that almost anyone can become a great teacher with the right training and support, coupled with a belief in the potential of all students to learn. And it’s urgent work because no matter what the schools of the future may look like, one thing will never change: Children are not born with the academic and character skills they will need to thrive and lead choice-filled lives. It will always require a human interaction to help all young people grow to their full potential.

This article was originally posted on the WISE Initiative ed.review website in July 2017.

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