09/20/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Keeping the September Feeling Alive

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Every year around this time, we find ourselves with renewed excitement about the field of education. We can’t help it — especially knowing so many talented teachers we’ve helped place in schools each year. This year is no different. Another school year has opened with the return of highly skilled veteran teachers and the arrival of new teachers who bring fresh energy and perspectives to the work. Together, they help the remarkable independent school community raise the bar even higher on the collective quality of their programs.

If we could be allowed one wish for this school year it would be that schools sharpen their focus on what they need to do to support these new teachers and continue to feed the professional growth of veterans. We know that schools are committed to the professional growth of their faculty. But we also know that the work of teaching has changed a great deal this century and requires even greater skill than in decades past.

There are two major reasons for this shift. On the one hand, the world we are preparing students for is in constant flux. As is said often, we are preparing most of our students for jobs that do not exist today, where they’ll use technology that has yet to be invented to solve problems that we can only imagine now. In other words, while educators still need to focus on teaching their subject knowledge, they also need to focus on building a broad array of life and learning skills, including creativity, problem solving, high-level reasoning, collaboration, the transferring of knowledge from one area to another, and more.

At the same time that we are weaving the teaching of knowledge and skills, our educators need to be able to work with an increasingly diverse population of students who come with a wide range of cultural and educational experiences. We need teachers with the cultural skills to meet students where they are and move them where they need to go.

As one of our favorite education researchers and writers, Linda Darling Hammond, notes in her new coauthored book, “Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning,” “Teachers who are successful with all learners must have tools and practices to learning about their students’ different ways of learning, prior experiences and knowledge, and cultural and linguistic capital.” She notes that good teachers today must understand the constructs of race and class, the history of schooling and society, and how both impact students in and out of school.

There’s nothing simple about this work — and it’s not the sort of work you can easily engage in just because you have attended school yourself and know your subject well. Even attending colleges and graduate schools of education will get you only so far. Today, quality teaching requires lots of conscious, collaborative, ongoing skill building.

To this end, we encourage schools to name the values and skills their teachers need to know, and prioritize these values and skills in the professional development program this year.

Of course, even as we say this, we can think of many schools that have been improving and fine-tuning their approaches to 21st-century learning — supporting both the academic and social-emotional development of their students across race, gender, class, cultural differences, and more.

For instance, there are a number of independent schools that have worked of late with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to improve their support for students’ social-emotional development and resiliency. Three come to mind.

The Willows Community School in California has been working with the Yale Center to integrate social-emotional development into the curriculum — making it an essential part of each teacher’s coursework. The primary classes at the Lycee Français de New York, a bilingual K-12 independent school, have adopted the Yale Center’s RULER curricular framework for building social-emotional skills and resiliency in all students. The school has been working with parents, too, to help them stay involved in their children’s emotional development during what are clearly anxious cultural times.

Brewster Academy, in New Hampshire, has been an official partner of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence since 2011, and is helping to fund research on social and emotional development in high school students. Brewster Academy is also piloting its own personal development course for high school students.

In a letter to the school community on this subject, Brewster Academy Head of School Craig Gemmel underscores the value of this work:

Transformation is clearly manifested in so many ways: students develop deep and abiding understanding of themselves as learners; students come to understand the unique strengths and needs of others with whom they are working; students learn to collaborate with each other and with their team of teachers deeply effectively; and students come to value partnership to such a degree that they seek support reflexively from students and adults alike to challenge themselves through collaboration and not the relentless, isolating competition that characterizes so many elite educations.

It’s great to see independent schools sharpen their focus on the full development of each student in an era when this work is needed more than ever. Schools, of course, don’t need us to tell them how to approach this work. But we thought we’d share some thoughts from educators we admire. When it comes to faculty development, they encourage schools to:

  • Clarify core beliefs and practices and make them central to all conversations about the curriculum and student life.
  • Focus all teacher professional development on bringing these core beliefs and practices to light in every class.
  • Support teachers in developing a deeper understanding of the complex human development at each age level.
  • Ensure that the curriculum design for all subjects focuses on both subject knowledge and the building of life and learning skills.
  • Support collaborative teaching and cross-disciplinary courses.
  • When hiring, hire for the combination of diversity, cultural competency, and collaboration.
  • Focus some teacher development on differentiated instruction and developing student agency.
  • Establish a mentor program for every new teacher.
  • Encourage all teachers to visit each other’s classrooms regularly.
  • Set up and support inter- and intra-school professional learning communities.

This is just a short list of ways to keep the promise and hopes of September going year-round. Mostly, though, we want to let educators in all our client schools know how much we admire the work you do on behalf of all children. Our goal is to support you in this work in as many ways as possible.

Happy school year!

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