Obtaining total engagement of every teacher is a campus principal’s dream. “Teacher of the Year” awards and “Teacher Recognition Week” fall short of achieving that goal. Perhaps principals should borrow from Mark Toth’s webinar Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Employee Engagement (summarized in “The Top 10 Reasons That Your Employees Really Quit,” TLNT: June 21, 2012).
Mark Toth delineates the six E’s of engagement: envision, empathize, enhance, empower, encourage, and evaluate. Although Toth is not pointing specifically at public education, his rules of engagement apply. Teachers do not become comprehensively engaged unless the principal communicates a “bold, clear, and inspirational” campus vision and involves teachers in that mental picture. The dynamic principal empathizes with teachers, seeking to “understand their motivations and strengths.” He/she offers meaningful staff development to enhance and update teaching skills. Often this involves launching teachers into 21st Century technology. Additionally, the compelling principal empowers teachers” to do meaningful work.” Empowerment implies trust that the engaged teacher can and will produce desired outcomes. Empowerment also implies patience and encouragement as the teacher moves from his/her comfort zone.
The final “E” of engagement, “evaluate on a truthful and timely basis,” may be the most difficult for campus principals to apply. Principals usually conduct a yearly formal classroom observation and a few classroom visits, write comments into a prescribed document, and conduct a hasty post-observation conference with each teacher. Mandated evaluations frequently fall short of “timely,” maybe even fall short of “truthful.”
In order to implement the six E’s of teacher engagement, the thoughtful principal/leader continually interacts with teachers toward the compelling vision, develops a trusting relationship with each teacher, and encourages teachers toward daily maximum performance. The principal, of course, models total engagement within the shared vision.
Much has been said and written about the use of new technologies in the classroom. Global information is readily available today. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, is free of charge. Search engines facilitate data access. A few computer strokes will organize data into graphs and charts. Graphic illustrations are easier, even for those not artistic. Power point has revolutionized presentations.
Does this mean that educators must abolish all old practices in favor of the new? Tacy Stephens, in an ATPE news brief, wrote, “Thinking by Hand.” She stated that writing by hand helps students to develop fine motor skills, improving the way they understand and compose their thoughts. “Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), neurologists have identified a unique relationship between the hand and the brain.” The idea is that sequential hand movements activate certain areas of the brain. Perhaps handwriting, an important facet of note-taking and composing, is needed in the 21st Century classroom.
Are there old educational practices that should be abolished or at least modified? Alfie Kohn, in The Homework Myth, suggested there is little evidence that homework is academically beneficial, especially when assigned to children in the primary grades. He stated that excessive amounts of homework become a burden on both children and their parents. Homework assessments may mean little. Some students simply copy the homework of their peers, never gaining the practice for which the homework was intended. Others depend strongly on their parents for homework answers and project assistance. Perhaps the practice of assigning homework should be modified, if not abolished.
In summary, 21st Century classrooms should be a combination of the best “tried and proven” practices and the new technological advances. Educators must decide how to “merge the old with the new.”
The Community of Education Leaders recently discussed “Transmedia in Education” on GETideas.org. The major thread of the conversation was that today’s students are vastly different from their predecessors and that education must change to meet their needs. Simon Pulman expressed, “Educators and administrators who do not move quickly to incorporate digital learning and cross-platform thinking into the curriculum will do a disservice to students.” Lucas Johnson affirmed that people do not live within a single medium at a time. Instead, they continually “immerse themselves across multiple medias — reading, watching, listening, touching.”
A high quality 21st Century education must challenge students to “evaluate biases, see problems from different perspectives, and examine the credibility of each information source” (Pulman). Most topics can be explored in greater depth through sources outside the classroom. Students can build a personal voice through creative use of multiple platforms. Educators must understand how information flows from one media platform to the next. Only then will they be able to design interactive experiences that produce meaningful learning for students.
Do state assessments accurately measure student achievement? Do “school report cards” correctly measure campus and district performance? Making public educators and educational systems accountable is a worthwhile intent. In the old “knuckle-rapping” days, teachers were the experts on dispensing knowledge as well as discipline. They were not held accountable. They threw educational tidbits in the general direction of their students. If a student did not catch a tidbit of wisdom, then the student was considered lazy or obtuse. Teachers were seldom observed or evaluated. There were no campus or district report cards.
Today, few educators would suggest that American schools return to the old era of public education. Educational funding necessitates accountability. However, the current system is lacking in accuracy and flexibility. For example, students with test anxiety do not test well though they may know the material. Terminology within test questions may favor children of certain racial, socio-economic, or religious backgrounds. Some test questions are more regional than general. Multiple outside forces affect student scores, i.e. whether a family pet died the night before, whether stormy weather disrupted test sessions, whether a student had an adequate breakfast. True assessments are both formative and cumulative, rather than a one-day occurrence. Think of the variance in a golfer’s scores.
Also, state assessments may not focus on the actual knowledge and skill set required for the 21st Century. In a 2008 article, “Five Socio-Technology Trends that …,” Wilmark mentioned “converging technologies and emerging social trends” that lay the groundwork for “entirely new landscapes, in society, in commerce, in the very meaning of the work we do and the lives we lead, and ultimately in what, where, why, and how we learn.” If educators cannot predict precisely what students need to know in an ever-changing world, how can the success of students beyond high school graduation be accurately predicted by state assessments? And why are campuses and districts judged by one-day snapshots of student progress?
Understanding the thoughts and emotions of others is a dynamic skill called social perspective-taking (SPT). Politicians, actors, trial lawyers, interrogators, salespersons, and police detectives depend upon this skill for success. A deeper level of SPT is called “empathy,” understanding or sharing another’s thoughts or feelings. This level includes developing rapport or communing with another.
If teachers were to develop a high level of empathy or at least STP, their classrooms would be transformed into active learning sites. Frustration would be reduced. Individualized instruction would be natural. Lesson plans would facilitate interest and motivation. And students would seize learning opportunities.
Furthermore, if teachers could help students to develop a high level of empathy, bullying would decrease and cooperation among students would increase. Students would gain a significant upsurge of useable knowledge.
For dozens of years, students were made to believe that textbooks were the epitome of knowledge although textbook authors may have been biased. For example, American history books presented battles from the viewpoint of the pioneer rather than that of the Indian. Teachers taught from the “facts” as presented in the textbooks, and students accepted the lessons as truth.
Today, students are exposed to multiple sources of information about every possible subject. Teachers differentiate between fact and opinion. Students are encouraged to form their own opinions after researching issues. With the internet, research is only a few keyboard strokes away.
Whereas Texas formerly provided a state-approved textbook for each student in each course of study, the state now provides each district with an “instructional materials” allotment. The funds may be spent on textbooks, or they may be spent on technology equipment such as iPads. Though still in use by most school districts, textbooks are certainly not the major source of information.
Education in American public schools has undergone remarkable change in the past two decades. Advances in technology have played a major role in this evolution. For example, graphing calculators have modified how mathematics is taught. The focus is not on memorizing multi-step calculations but on using a calculator to solve complex problems. Computers have created instant access to information. Thus libraries and textbooks are no longer the absolute source of knowledge.
In a networking society, the focus is sharing. Public schools must now teach students to be team members, maximizing the contributions of each individual. One student helping another may have been “cheating” in an earlier age, whereas the same action is now “teamwork.”
Because the advance of technology has transformed entertainment, students and their parents are no longer content with an educational system of “sit and get.” Today’s teachers must be more creative, providing students with opportunities to satisfy curiosity, pursue issues of interest, and seek meaningful solutions.