Teachers Matter: Relationships, Relevance and Rigor

September 16, 2011

What does passion for learning look like? As I visit schools, the high quality of teaching I observe provides opportunities for students to experience a passion for learning in our classrooms, libraries, gyms, art rooms, and performing arts spaces.

I recently observed middle school students in a Civics class energetically discussing personal perspectives on the difference between rights and privileges as they applied the concept to school dress codes. They found out about Supreme Court cases, law, and policy as they talked with each other and the teacher. Kindergarteners in another school bubbled with excitement as they learned together to read each others’ names sitting on a rug with the teacher. In both cases, teachers recognized that active learners are enthusiastic learners and that such enthusiasm results in contagion for further learning.

experimenting

When students work individually or together in project- and problem-based work, the level of active learning is high. While daily instruction represents a balance of activities including direct teaching, active learning brings to life our Vision that learners will “embrace learning, excel, and own their future.” Working together, students also acquire competencies they will need for adult citizenship, post-secondary education, and, ultimately, the work world.

From our own experience as students, we also know that great teaching makes learning irresistible. It’s no surprise to educators that quality teaching is the most important reason inside a school for a child’s success. (Of all factors inside and outside of school that affect achievement, family income makes the biggest difference.) Irresistible learning draws young people to others who share common interests and they dig deeper into content that otherwise might not be explored.

What leads to irresistible learning? A child’s relationship with teachers – and parents – influences his or her desire to learn. Teachers who create challenging activities provoke both a student’s curiosity and further thinking about problems, ideas, and knowledge. When learning becomes relevant to students, they’re better able to make real world sense of Virginia’s required Standards of Learning. Teachers who ground their work with young people through relationships, relevancy, and rigor create communities of learners in which young people acquire the competencies they need to be successful graduates of our high schools.

using data

Recently, I listened to a group of Cale Elementary children describe how they figured out the percentage of land mass and water on Earth by tossing a soft globe to each other and recording how many times a hand landed on land versus water. This activity supported a different kind of thinking than would occur from simply reading a textbook to find the answer. The students practiced data collection skills, estimation competency, and analytical thinking individually and as a team. The class percolated with enthusiasm as they applied geography, math, and science concepts and knowledge to figure out the earth’s land and water percentages. They took on the role of “experts” to teach me how they accomplished this performance task while the teacher smiled at their capability to make sense out of fractions and percentages as a function of the data they had collected. Their passion was evident.

What kinds of experiences kindle passion in our young people?

Third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary have already Skyped this year with schools in Australia and Egypt to ask questions and learn about those countries. A third grader said, “I don’t just like hearing and reading about a place, I love going to it using Skype.”

The School Board opened its regular meeting on September 8 with a beautiful and passionate rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the Burley Bearettes – in remembrance of the tenth anniversary of “9/11.”

Walton Middle School students connected virtually with students in Godfrey-Lee School District in Michigan to share project work related to learning about the history of “9/11.”

"9/11" parent/student project

Parents and students at Jack Jouett Middle School participated in the “I will” campaign to make service pledges at 911day.org in memory of those who perished on that day or who were first responders.

Burley students also just finished a Constitutional Convention re-enactment as part of a Constitution unit underway as we approach national Constitution Week.

Irresistible learning occurs within all extracurricular and curricular areas, not just English, science, history, mathematics, and world languages. It’s in the art on display in hallways as students show what they “see”. It’s in the laughter of Henley’s choral students practicing rhythm as they learned each other’s names. It’s in the student-athletes, male and female, hard at work in fall sports competitions. It’s in young people creating and performing a variety of fall programs – band, strings, choral, and drama productions.

Passion also resides in the new Broadus Wood music teacher working with an expert mentor teacher to plan the first few weeks of school. Passion for learning is not just about our young people. It’s found within our entire community of professionals who also learn from each other and together.

New teacher academy

Education is a people business. When the Board, school staff, or I speak to the importance of student and teacher access to technology tools and other resources, it’s critical to remember that challenging and interesting learning comes from its planning and facilitation by teachers. As I have often said, technology cannot greet a child in the morning, listen, make eye contact, or offer advice. While all forms of technology – books, pencils, paper, and netbooks – have a place in our schools, technologies cannot replace the teacher. It’s teachers who make our Division’s core values come alive; expecting excellence in all we do, offering young people our very best, ensuring respect for self and others, and valuing our diverse school communities.

Every school community needs creative and thoughtful professionals with the expertise to choose from a “tool kit” of available instructional strategies, technologies, resources, and room arrangements to support learners to access what they need to accomplish the learning work they need to do. Every teacher needs contemporary resources and technologies to ensure children have access to the tools they need to accomplish contemporary learning work that prepares them for life after high school.

We’re fortunate in Albemarle County to employ teachers who know how to create contemporary learning opportunities for young people. They are committed to their own continuous development to extend and enhance their professional skills across their careers just as their counterparts in medicine, law, engineering, and other professions do. Our educators know that learning is about far more than scores on a multiple-choice test. They know they make a difference in whether young people will find learning irresistible.

Teachers matter.