Supporting and Sustaining Effective Teaching

Posted by Sanda Balaban on April 17, 2013

Number two pencils out please! First question: How much does a good teacher matter?
A) A lot—students assigned to highly effective teachers achieve better life outcomes
B) Somewhat, but class size is more significant than teacher quality
C) Not that much—student socioeconomic status trumps all other variables

Your livelihood, and your professional satisfaction, might depend on the right answer...Research consistently demonstrates that teachers are the most important school-influenced variable on student performance. An influential report published last year by the National Bureau of Educational Research on the long term impacts of teachers on student outcomes found that students assigned to “High Value-Add” teachers are more likely to attend college, attend higher-ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher SES neighborhoods, and save more for retirement.

Yet while there is widespread agreement about the importance of highly effective teachers, particularly for the neediest students, morale among teachers is at its lowest in over 20 years according to the March 2013 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. Urban teachers’ roles have never been more challenging in light of a more diverse spectrum of student skills, needs, and interests in their classrooms; the impact of environmental stressors related to increased levels of poverty; economic conditions that have reduced already-emaciated school budgets; and greater accountability requirements. Can teachers still have an impact when working against these daunting challenges? More than 50% of teachers expressed at least some reservation about their jobs, and roughly one in three said they were likely to leave the profession in the next five years, with the deepest levels of dissatisfaction evidenced in urban areas.

Yikes! Although teachers are vitally important, we don’t need to tell you that they are often enormously underappreciated and overworked. So just what does “effective teaching” look like? As part of a generous grant from the Rita Allen Foundation, Facing History’s Urban Civic Learning Lab has identified the following as key elements of effective teaching in successful Facing History classrooms:
• Forge deep relationships with students
• Draw upon a rich array of resources that enable them to engage students
• Provide high quality instruction aligned to the Common Core
• Receive coaching and support to continue to grow as professionals
• Benefit from the intellectual stimulation and support they crave and deserve

Since our founding in 1976, Facing History has recognized that teacher effectiveness is at the heart of educational success for students, and that adult learning and development is a key lever of improving educational opportunities and outcomes for students. To prepare students for thoughtful participation in a democracy, teachers must be capable of engaging students in a learning process that reflects core aspects of civil society. Towards this end, teachers are supported by Facing History in creating classroom settings characterized by respectful relationships in which students deliberate on complex and challenging subject matter.

Facing History and Ourselves’ professional development supports teacher effectiveness in four interrelated domains:
1) teaching for understanding;
2) making curriculum accessible and relevant for the diversity of students they teach and helping them to differentiate instruction appropriately;
3) creating safe, inclusive learning communities; and
4) promoting deliberation that fosters emotional and ethical growth and civic agency.

Facing History’s approach enables teachers to support students in developing the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in our diverse and dynamic global society: mastery of core academic content; ability to think critically, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and solve complex problems (qualities that constitute what the Hewlett Foundation defines as “deeper learning”); and commitment to ongoing learning and personal growth.

None of this is easy of course, particularly given the very high class size and intense pressures around test scores that most teachers in Los Angeles face! In a recent conversation with Leigh Ann Orr, who Los Angeles Leigh Ann Orr_polariodteaches 10th grade world history at the Mendez Learning Center in Boyle Heights, I was struck by her description of the various ways Facing History has supported her over the course of her 15 year involvement with the organization. She noted how overwhelming the Facing History curricula and approach can seem to teachers not familiar with the tremendous support Facing History provides. Yet in light of Facing History’s ongoing coaching and support in curriculum planning, Leigh Ann underscored how well equipped she has felt in addressing the level of challenge, citing how vital Program Associate Dan Alba has been “in providing the perfect resource at the perfect time, just when you need it (or before you even know you need it.)”

And her investment in Facing History has paid off. Although she harbored concerns about whether decisions like not teaching the whole Cold War in order to delve more deeply into Facing History’s Holocaust and Human Behavior might negatively impact test scores, she discovered quite the opposite last year as her students’ test scores increased. Through conversation with Dan, she decided to survey students themselves, asking them about why they thought they did so well, and what it was about the holocaust unit that seems to have contributed to their success. Students shared wonderful insights such as “we got into details and remembered more,” “sometimes when you study from a book you just learn a little” (referencing field trips and other activities they engaged in), “the artifacts that were preserved (in a field trip to the Breed Street Synagogue) make you wonder--each one had a story behind it,” and “it made us get into history, like history, and feel more confident.” Dan shared his hypothesis about the gains in student test scores despite sacrifice of “coverage” being due to LeighAnn’s students knowing how to think about big questions and how to go about answering for themselves.

So how do we as individuals and as a society support and sustain effective teaching like this?
A comprehensive body of research has consistently demonstrated that deep engagement with Facing History yields:
• heightened sense of professional purpose
• additional opportunities for reflection
• increased ways for teachers to work together, decreasing isolation and workload
• enhanced camaraderie among teachers and empathy for students’ interests
• support in becoming more accomplished professionals

At a time when expectations of teachers are at an all-time high and teacher morale is at an all-time low, Facing History's proven impact on teacher satisfaction and stimulation is more important than ever, and we know there is more to learn. We feel so lucky to work with extraordinary teachers to amplify their impact, and look forward to continuing to support teachers to create engaging classroom environments and improve student outcomes.

Where or how do you gain the support you need to sustain your own good teaching? How do you support other educators in effective teaching?


This is the second in a series on Facing History’s Urban Education Civic Learning Lab. Click here to read the first post in the series.

To read more about the evaluation of Facing History and Ourselves’ program, click here.

Topics: Urban Education

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