Ms. Harder's 'wish list' for better serving students / by Christopher Stewart

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In March 2007 a great teacher approached the microphone at a school board meeting to offer a few things she needed. I was taken by her insights because they were humbly stated, while also being elegant, reasonable, and born out of real experience. Her name is Brionna Harder and her reputation is amazing.  I visited her high school social studies class to participate in political forums she devised to allow students direct access to elected officials, and her students were well-prepared and self-motivated. It was the type of class and environment I wish I had in high school. I recently reached out to her get permission to share her words below. She graciously agreed with the disclaimer that this was seven years ago and she has better different insights now. We differ quite a bit politically, but not about the missional needs of education. ********************

Here are the things that were on Ms. Harder's wish list:

Harder1) Team time every day, in addition to regular/personal prep:

For much of my career thus far, I have taught on a teaching team. Some times, being on team provided the members with a team prep in addition to the personal prep. Embedding the teaming experience intentionally into the school day offers students and teachers alike countless benefits, including dramatic increases in student achievement, positive student behavior, teacher efficacy and professional development. I could provide an extensive description of how teams have used this time in the past, but in the interests of brevity, here are my top three favorite uses of team time (not necessarily in this order):

  • Strengthening relationships with our students and their families - The team prep allowed us the opportunity meet with students for any number of reasons to provide positive feedback, support, remediation or behavioral interventions. Additionally, we commonly invited family members to these meetings, ensuring that the team was truly an inclusive team. We were also able to contact family members in a timely manner regarding progress, behavior and opportunities for involvement.
  • Looking at student data and rigorous assessments - One of the professional practices I miss most that has been lost due to the lack of team time is the weekly use of the Standards in Practice protocol. This regular evaluation of course assessments and review of student work for rigor has been invaluable to my professional growth.
  • Creating interdisciplinary units - The daily meeting allowed us to create effective interdisciplinary units, through which students would increase their higher order thinking skills by seeing connections between the disciplines as well as strengthening their content-specific knowledge and skills.

2) Blocked scheduling for the purposes of innovative and interdisciplinary educational experiences:

The blocked scheduling, when effectively used, provides teams with the flexibility we desire within the structure we have. For instance, our ninth grade IB prep team, blocked 2nd, 3rd, 4th hours and lunch, has used this block schedule for our annual team retreat and for field trips, including a walk over to Shingle Creek to do water testing for biology, river poetry for English and the geographic features of waterways in Geography. In these instances, our students did not missed their off-team classes while engaged in enriching educational activities uninterrupted by a bell every 50 minutes.

3) Classes at 25 or less:

Class sizes must decrease to best support students, particularly those struggling in high rigor classrooms. If one of the end goals is for each classroom to be a high rigor classroom, our students deserve nothing less than smaller class sizes.

4) Behavior deans with a city-wide discipline that is uniformly enforced:

Behavior is a serious issue in our schools and our communities. We must reinstitute the dean structure in order to deal with some of the more persistent behavior issues that can have a debilitating effect on the educational experiences of both individual students as well as communities of students within our classrooms.

5) Strong instructional leaders in every building:

Instructional leaders are at the core of a successful building. We have so many talented teacher-leaders in this district. At Patrick Henry, we have the PHIL (Patrick Henry Instructional Leader) model that empowers teachers to lead the professional development, student engagement, data and accountability, mentoring and curriculum and instructional initiatives in the building. This structure has created a cohesive educational and professional philosophy within our building that continues despite changes in administration. Each week, I learn of the amazing talent in and work done by teacher-leaders around the district and we need to get better at tapping into that energy, commitment and professionalism to the benefit of our schools.

We must also, however, have strong leaders in the administrations of our building. Teachers need to have administrators who are instructional leaders in action, not only name. This requires a commitment to providing quality professional development, mentoring and support to principals as well as having mechanisms by which principals can be held accountable to their staff, students, families and community members in meaningful ways.

6) Academic counselors at a respectable and effective ratio:

The state of academic counseling in our high schools is appalling. We have two counselors in a building of nearly 1300 students and much of the academic counseling falls to the SLC coordinators and advisory teachers. Our students deserve better.

Finally, we need to be able to count on these supports. Sustainability of programs and school supports is a critical challenge we face as we move forward in transforming our high schools. It is this area, more than any other, that needs the attention of the school board.

Teaching is a perfect example of optimism in action. I teach because I believe in the future. Despite the difficulties of the last six years, I teach in Minneapolis because I believe in the future of our students and our schools. But, our commitment must be real and our good and hard work sustainable. I am optimistic that the work of the school board and district leaders can help us all get there.