Teachers: Don’t Feel Guilty About What You Can’t Do. The System Needs to Change.
Author: Jennifer Poon
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Over the past week, friends of mine—former colleagues who teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District—stood outside their school, exposed to the cold, rain and loss of daily wages. Undeterred, they documented their cause on social media and found solidarity with others fighting for the district to reinvest in its schools rather than divest them to private interests.
This historic moment touches me both personally and professionally. I stepped out of the classroom in 2010 to work on education systems change at the state and national level, learning from creative public educators across the country. But the debate over reinvesting in public education in LAUSD contextualizes my work, resurfacing all the things we did—and wish we could have done—to promote success for all learners.
Back then, I thought these “what if’s” were manifestations of my own shortcomings as a teacher. Now I understand they are ramifications of how the system is designed.
To reinvest is to “put the profit on a previous investment back into the same place.” The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has been calling on LAUSD to reinvest its budget and reserves toward resolving critical needs in its schools. In my time there, we often enrolled more students per class than we had desks to seat them in (mind you, I had 40 desks). We were lucky to have a full class set of books and were rationed two reams of copy paper per teacher for the entire semester. Our rotating crew of counselors and support professionals felt constantly overwhelmed by the volume of students in their care.
It is clear the public education system needs reinvestment. However, we need to ask ourselves whether reinvesting our resources “back into the same place” will be enough, or if there is still some disconnect between the current system and our ambitions for it.
Reflecting on my time at LAUSD and what I’ve learned from my time with organizations like Education Reimagined, where I serve as an advisory board member, things are moving toward learner-centered education. I believe we need to both reinvest in, and reimagine, the education system.
As a teacher, I felt that too often our creative efforts to engage students in learning were compromised by a broader system that doesn’t truly understand how learning occurs in the young mind. Neuroscience shows us that learning is active, social, contextual, even sporadic. It happens at different times for each learner based on their prior knowledge, prerequisite skills and interests. Learning cannot be coerced by ringing a bell nor compelled by the directive to “turn your textbooks to page 204.”
It might, instead, look like this.
In my third year of teaching, I developed an “Eco-Column Design Challenge” to help students master concepts in ecology, while promoting creativity and engagement. Working in small groups with defined roles, students applied their knowledge of energy pyramids and nutrient cycles to design and actually create mini-biospheres that could support terrestrial and aquatic life—even after being sealed shut.
Students collaborated, constructed their designs, collected data, wrote reports and gave presentations. I had columns full of decomposing goldfish that year, but that wasn’t the point. Students wanted to come to class, and they were learning deeply.
Here’s the catch: I offered this project during the last three weeks of school, only after state testing concluded. Before then, I couldn’t find the time. As teachers, our duty was to follow scope and sequence, covering the standards so that students would perform well on state tests. Our public image, student enrollment and funding hinged on it.
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder: what if I could make this kind of creative, contextual learning happen throughout the year? How much more might my students have learned?
I had other “what if’s” too. What if I could differentiate instruction in more effective ways than providing extra worksheets to advanced students or offering after-school tutoring for those who struggled? What if I found the time to know every student on a more personal level? What if I could do more interdisciplinary work or give credit for learning that happens outside my classroom?
Back then, I thought these “what if’s” were manifestations of my own shortcomings as a teacher. Now, however, I understand they are also ramifications of how the system is designed.
In my recent work, I have toured schools and districts in Kentucky, Wisconsin and Maine that fundamentally restructure time, space, resources and the roles of educators, assuring each student receives “just in time” assistance in ways that are most effective for their learning. I have sat with teachers in New Hampshire as they co-create performance assessments—featuring tasks not so different from my Eco-Columns—that evidence student learning in authentic ways throughout the year. And I have learned from schools across California that make student exhibition a regular part of learning.
What if the entire system was designed to support transformative teaching and learning?
These transformation stories guide us to reimagine how our schools and districts operate. Instead of expecting educators to intimately know and be able to differentiate instruction for every child in their current classrooms, can we reimagine educators’ roles as advisors, mentors, lead teachers, and seminar or studio teachers? Instead of trying to fit project-based learning within the confines of standardized testing schedules, can we create new assessment models that rely on common, calibrated performance tasks more akin to the deeper learning we desire? Rather than expecting every child to learn within traditional 45-minute periods or block scheduling, can we reserve partial or whole days for each student and their adult mentors to address individual needs or interests?
It’s true that inspiring work can still emerge within the existing system (just consider how two extraordinary, former colleagues introduced socially relevant, project-based learning at our school). But what if the entire system was designed to support this kind of transformative teaching and learning?
These aren’t questions for the bargaining table, but for entire communities to address. Even as the LAUSD strike resolves, my desire is for all educators, including my dear colleagues, to thrive in learning environments that both invest in their success and reimagine policies and structures to better support every learner.
This is the future I and many other learner-centered educators are working for every day. Let’s reimagine and transform education, rather than tweaking the status quo. Our children’s future depends on it.