Teaching Like the World's on Fire

The Gallup Student poll measures “the hope, engagement, and wellbeing of public school students in grades 5 through 12 across the United States.” Brian Busteed, Gallup Education’s Executive Director, told attendees at the Education Commission of the States National Forum yesterday that in their 2013 poll, Gallup learned that student engagement drops through the secondary years. This alarming statistic was accompanied by another, perhaps more chilling data set: educators are similarly disengaged. Of all professionals, teachers are the least likely to say, “At work, my opinions seem to count.” Finally, Busteed delivered the correlative piece that brought it all together: Students who strongly agreed with two statements, “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student,” and “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future,” were thirty times more likely to be engaged in school than those who do not. That’s a 3,000% increase in student engagement.

Busteed’s solution, which I agree with: engage more students by increasing teacher engagement. Busteed’s plan for increasing teacher engagement? Bring in better, more engaging principals and school leaders. While Busteed’s presentation resonated with me on many levels, it’s with this last point that our opinions diverge. I believe that teacher engagement comes from teachers, not principals. If we want to increase teacher engagement, we need to look within the teaching profession instead of hoping for salvation from above.

A recent study from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year showed that teachers get the most out of professional development when we choose it for ourselves, and that teachers who mentor and train other teachers enjoy deep and lasting improvements in their own teaching. Teachers leading teachers is not a revolutionary concept. Go to a dentists’ conference, and you’ll hear dentists presenting to other dentists. Plumbers set the bar for what it means to be a great plumber. Why not have teachers do the same?

Here’s the rub: teaching is inherently compelling work. Everyone knows we’re not in it for the money or the accolades. As Randy Rick from Farmer’s Insurance says, teachers are oases for our kids. Waking up the morning with the knowledge that I create that magical place of safety, belonging, and hope for amazing young people is what propels me from the bed like a flaming comet. Highly engaged educators teach like the world’s on fire not because someone else motivated us but because we fuel the fire from within. Yvette Jackson, author of The Pedagogy of Confidence, says that every teacher, even one with the outward marks of chronic disengagement, has a coal smoldering within. And while a great school leader can certainly fan the flame — often by stepping back to allow enough oxygen to feed the fire — teachers have fires-starting toolkits within our ranks, and we know how to keep one another’s bonfires roaring.

In my years of teaching, the great school leaders have been the ones that allowed and encouraged teacher leadership. Just as fires need fuel and oxygen to burn, teachers need resources and freedom — collaborative freedom — to stay engaged. Teachers know what kids need. We know what changes need to be made in schools. When we are empowered to train one another to make those changes, to be the best and most innovative professionals out there, our engagement kindles those much needed-fires. So here is my answer for Brian Busteed: yes, we have a problem with student engagement, especially at the secondary level. Yes, teacher engagement is the answer to that problem. But teachers don’t necessarily become engaged by Super-Principals that light our fires with their incendiary leadership. Teachers are already engaged by the meaning and power of our work with young people. If you want to engage teachers, encourage our leadership from within the profession. Respect our knowledge and craftsmanship. Let us teach one another the best and most innovative practices. Give our fires the fuel to burn, but also allow the oxygen they need to grow.

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