Plenary spotlights teacher-driven professionalism

The transformational power of teacher professionalism—intentionally shaped, deliberately cultivated and frontline driven—was featured Friday at a TEACH panel discussion that explored avenues to support powerful learning and to develop teacher and staff capacity.

AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker moderated the session, which featured comments from teacher and musical theater director Tanisha Cidel of Norland Middle School in Miami; teacher and science department chair Terri Applewhite-Grosso of Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City; and Erin Benham, president of the Meriden (Conn.) Federation of Teachers and a vice president of AFT Connecticut.

Among the topics addressed were how equity and access impact efforts to create powerful learning environments; how to develop classroom strategies dedicated to learning through inquiry and demonstrated student work; and how unions can play a central role in ensuring teachers have the time, knowledge and support they need to succeed.

Panel from collaboration session

"Two things that should never be separated," Ricker said at the outset of the discussion, "are powerful learning for students and the knowledge, capacity and supports for teachers and staff to make that possible."

Cidel emphasized that no cookie-cutter approach can guarantee outstanding practice or classroom success, and it is important for teachers to seek out approaches that "connect with each child and treat them as individuals." Make good use of students' personal interests in the classroom, she advised. If students "are interested in it, they take hold of it."

Because assessments "drive the way we teach our students," they must be used in ways that don't blunt effective practice, Applewhite-Grosso said. At her school and in her school consortium, "we had to fight so we could assess our students in a different way," using performance-based measures that "flow out of student interests." The results, she said, are "classes that are designed to grow out of their interests" and approaches that leave students "feeling expert and being able to defend their work."

Collaboration panelists

This type of environment doesn't happen by accident, panelists agreed. It must be deliberately cultivated, and unions play a big role in that effort, Benham said. "Collaboration is very intentional," she observed, and that means unions and districts must work together and incorporate effective "learning for teachers" as part of the core mission.

The work is ambitious and challenging, Ricker cautioned, and parties must proceed in a clear-eyed manner. "Collaboration does not mean the absence of tension," she stressed. The key is "knowing what to do with it and making sure it doesn't become toxic."

The panel addressed several obstacles that schools must overcome to help both teachers and students do their best. Equity in school funding, time for professional growth, and resources available to both the school and the home continue to be major challenges, all agreed. "I teach theater in a science lab," Cidel told the audience, and in a program where money isn't available to stage musicals. Addressing these problems requires public support—making it vital for educators to share their successes far and wide when it comes to great programs and outstanding work underway in their classrooms and schools.

The human factor also can be an obstacle that teachers must overcome. "When an administrator is afraid of sharing power with staff," Ricker observed, it can "create a climate where [classroom educators] refuse to share with students" in ways that can foster effective, self-directed practices.

All of the panelists agreed that these challenges can be overcome and that starting small is often the best way to proceed, Applewhite-Grosso noted. "Teachers have to support each other, have to mentor each other and have to grow together," she said. "If you can get a group of people, just a few teachers, to support each other, you can get a change in culture."

[Mike Rose]