Bringin’ the Optimism

First, I want to thank Andy for generously inviting us to guest blog. Teach Plus is a young nonprofit and we really appreciate the opportunity to talk about our work and connect it to the larger policy issues of the moment.

Second, I’m thrilled about the timing. By this point in the summer, we’ve all gotten the chance to shake off the last school year and start looking forward to the next. Summer allows us to re-connect to our own sense of the possible. While I no longer have my own classroom, it’s that sense of the possible that I encounter in teachers every day that drives the work of Teach Plus.

Third, I want to start with a preview: the next week is likely to be heavy on teacher quality/ teacher effectiveness. With Andy, readers have come to expect commentary that spans the gamut of education issues and deftly weaves in erudite cultural references. My interests aren’t that broad. I founded Teach Plus because I’m somewhat obsessed with one question:

How do we transform teaching into a profession that motivates its most promising newcomers to extend their commitment to urban schools?

I believe this is the single most important question we can be asking on behalf of kids. Given what we know about 1) the primacy of the teacher’s role in student achievement, 2) the pace of attrition among new entrants in urban schools, and 3) the time it takes each teacher to reach his or her peak effectiveness, it is time to get serious about creating a second stage of the career that inspires more to pursue mastery in teaching.

At Teach Plus, our goal is to improve student outcomes by ensuring that a greater proportion of students have access to high quality, experienced teachers.  In service of this goal, Teach Plus supports the retention of effective teachers in urban schools by expanding leadership opportunities and performance incentives for those who demonstrate success with students. It is founded on the premise that teachers want to learn and grow in the profession, and want to ensure that their development results in increased learning among their students. In order for schools to continuously improve student achievement, teaching must become a career that motivates and rewards continuous improvement among practitioners.

Our approach is two-fold: First, we work with teachers to help them articulate their vision for transforming the profession. Our focus is on teachers in years 3-10. Second, we work with districts and schools to help them implement reforms aimed at retaining experienced, effective teachers in urban classrooms.

Our work to date with teachers gives us optimism that targeted strategies aimed at retaining effective teachers will have a significant impact—on student outcomes as well as on retention itself. We’ve had several hundred teachers apply to and inquire about our programs. The message across all of these individual teachers is remarkably similar and its significance for the future of the profession is profound. They tell us:

I love teaching; I know that I’m having a greater impact on my students now then when I first started; I liked the steep learning curve I encountered in my first years in the classroom and want to extend that challenge and  growth.

That message frames the problem Teach Plus seeks to address. Students suffer because we have low expectations for retaining effective teachers in urban classrooms. It is time to find a way for teaching to live up to its potential as a learning profession that challenges and rewards practitioners. In the coming days, we’ll be sharing our ideas for transforming the profession and enlisting the participation of some of the most inspiring teachers we know to share their views and experience.

– Guestblogger Celine Coggins, Founder of Teach Plus

2 Replies to “Bringin’ the Optimism”

  1. Ms. Coggins,

    As someone who has worked with teachers in many urban schools as a consultant over the last 15 years, I wholeheartedly support your mission.

    What we have found in our work at Teaching That Makes Sense has always astounded me: that good teachers move away from challenging urban schools not because of the kids because of other teachers and/or their principals.

    We do a lot of work with the workshop style of teaching and often we find ourselves in an awkward position where many teachers like the help we’re giving them as they grow into a new and exciting form of practice, but the majority of teachers in their school do not. They feel that their “way of life” is being threatened by new and more successful practice, and even though they don’t want to practice it themselves, their chief goal seems to be that no one improve their practice at all. Often, the principal is against us, too, as he or she prefers not to have any kind of conflict brewing.

    I believe that we have trained many teachers very well over the years — at least that’s what they tell us. And, as you’ve noted, most are in the “early middle” of their careers. But all too often these shining stars leave the schools where we’ve trained them in search of schools where they can practice the new skills they’ve learned without being harassed by their peers or their principal.

    Salary incentives (at least small ones in the 10% range) do not seem quite high enough to hold good teachers in place. Most report to us that what they hate the most is the loneliness of being the only progressive teacher in their building or department – and that no amount of extra money is worth dealing with that loneliness. With their newfound skills, many, of course, move to new positions entirely like instructional coaches. But that takes them out of the classroom. Some leave for other schools in the same district (often several times). And others move out to the suburbs where they can ply their trade with more people who seem to think and teach the way they do.

    What we have found is the necessity to have at least three people in the same building or department working together as a team. With even this small group, teachers seem not to feel so isolated and so picked on by the majority. But all too often, this group is “moved” around by a department head or principal and everyone goes back to being lonely again.

    What I’m wondering is how you deal with these issues in your program? In identifying and training teachers, do they end up being the only teachers of their kind in a given building? And how long do they stay in the buildings where they’ve been trained?

    All of the teachers I work with want to grow their practice in some way. But the majority of their peers do not. This is especially the case with workshop-style literacy instruction. So what we end up with are “islands of success” as Secretary Duncan says. And in a few years, those islands have all too often been deserted.

    Before I worked in education, I thought it was the kids who were tough. But now I think it’s really the teachers – the ones who don’t want to improve their practice or who just never got off to a good start, never really liked the job, and just feel overwhelmed by everything.


    Steve Peha
    President, Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

  2. You report on teacher quality is excellent. Our problems take off when the concentration of the most troubled students crosses a tipping point. So, a first step – as you write – is recognizing that “there is a “tipping point” in school staffing, when a dramatic shift in school culture is possible based on the composition of the teaching population.”

    Mass Insight pushes your point further in its outstanding suggestions for system reform, including the creating of areas where experiences can be shared. Its probably not a coincidence that these ideas are emerging up in Massachueseets which has prospered, as explained by Richard Florida, by creating a critical mass of talent.

    Education must tackle “the Big Sort.” There is no shortage of talent. There is no shortage in people wanting to sign up for the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. We can’t turnaround our toughest schools with warmed over versions of Taylorism and the blame and shame of NCLB. To turn optimism into true hope, we must create humane and respectful learning cultures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.