Lessons from #teachersfirst

Before the September 2015 #teachersfirst planning session, participants were treated to a talk with panelists from schools and community organizations across the city, as well as Dr. Henderson Lewis, Orleans Parish Superintendent. Here are the key takeaways:

1. Teachers want more and better methods of measuring efficacy — for themselves and their students.
Every child is different, just like every teacher. Educators expressed again and again the need for a holistic approach to evaluation, measuring impact beyond the test score. “Effective teachers will have both qualitative and quantitative evaluations for student growth, customized for each kid,” said Oluremi Abiodun, mathematics teacher at Langston Hughes Academy.

It’s not an either-or choice, though. “Culturally, holistic student development and emphasis on test-based achievement are not mutually exclusive,” said Josh Densen, head of Bricolage Academy.

2. The need for diversity goes beyond the need for African-American teachers.

Of course, African-American educators are a hugely important school demographic — but a consistent thread in the conversation was the demand for teachers diverse in age, experience level, gender and more.

Homegrown talent, males in the classroom, Hispanic and Asian teachers — all of these allow the rapidly diversifying body of public school students see themselves as professionals and leaders.

Terrance Burton, rising junior at Joseph S. Clark, served to voice the student perspective. “Knowing and learning with Hispanic and Vietnamese teachers and students lets me see I can go beyond what I already know. Especially [minority] males in the classroom — it is an affirmation.”

Reginald Coleman, Director of Family and Student Support Services at Clark, agreed: “If we want to put our young people in situations where they can be successful, we put successful people in front of them.”

3. Cultural competence is not diversity, and vice versa

Simply being of the same race doesn’t make a teacher culturally competent without intentionality. The call for educators to meet students where they are — with empathy, understanding, and nuance — resounded throughout the talk.

“New Orleans is a relational town. Let’s bring that into our education culture,” said Kendall McManus, Chemistry teacher at Warren Easton. “You can’t change the person a child is. You can help them build on it, but to do that you have to understand who they ARE first.”

4. There are more young people entering teaching as a career, through a variety of paths — but their voices are not defining the profession

Dr. Renee Akbar, chair of Xavier’s Education division, noted that their undergraduate education program is consistently shrinking, but the graduate program — usually sought individuals who already have degrees in the subjects they hope to teach — is consistently growing. “Private providers are the ones certifying folks not from New Orleans, shrinking numbers at the university level, and blocking the talent pipeline.”

She went on to talk about the opportunities and challenges of collaborating between traditional and alternative programs. “[Xavier] has reached out and called meetings between the providers, but we’re fighting over crumbs. It makes no sense. We understand collectively it has nothing to do with us, it’s all about the kids. So we’re continuing to meet.”

“Alternative certification programs like TFA are doing reform TO urban communities, not with them,” said McManus. “Our voices are being diluted and outsourced.”

Dr. Lisa Green-Derry of Urban Strategies spoke at length on the importance of New Orleans recognizing its assets — particularly those of the indigenous community — before looking to outside talent. “Highly qualified African-American teachers FROM New Orleans cannot get jobs in their own city,” she said. “This is a textbook example of failure to recognize assets.”

5. The tension between “school choice” and “a quality option for each neighborhood” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon

The struggle between parents’ ability to choose schools across the city vs. having quality neighborhood options doesn’t look to die down anytime soon. In the current New Orleans model, students may attend a school across the city from their home, and/or different from their siblings. Many argue that the easy solution to this is for each geographic area to have a high-quality option, but others worry the reform process’s length will disadvantage current students.

Lamont Douglas, parent of an Andrew H. Wilson Charter student, put it succinctly: “As a parent, I don’t have years to reform my neighborhood’s school. My concern is getting my child a good education now.”

Thanks to all of our panelists and participants for an enlightening, productive morning! We’re excited to announce that we’ll be publishing and pushing forward the community-driven educator action plan gathered from the participants, so keep an eye on this space.

Want more? Click here for the full livetweet session of the panels!