When I was a relatively young and inexperienced teacher, it became obvious to me that my school (which I liked and where I wanted to continue teaching) would not ever be providing me with professional learning commensurate with my aspirations—or my intelligence. I wanted to be a better music teacher—better ideas about music literature, better tips on improving my students’ skills and understandings, better insights into classroom management. Better everything.
There were two other band teachers in my district, neither of which was a satisfactory role model. And the professional development my district offered was so generic it was useless. Or worse.
For example, all secondary teachers in the district were subjected to mandated workshops on the Canter Assertive Discipline method, wherein we were supposed to put check marks next to unruly students’ names on the blackboard and send home weekly discipline reports on check-marked outlaws. At the time, I saw over 200 students a day, in huge classes, with one tiny blackboard already preprinted with music staves.
I was also smart enough to have figured out that I wanted kids to behave responsibly for reasons other than fear, record-keeping and retribution. Other teachers in my building hated the Canter method, too, but brought papers to grade during the workshops. Professional development? Something to endure—don’t expect growth or change.
But there were great instrumental music teachers out there, I knew. I met them at festivals and band directors’ meetings. I heard their bands and orchestras play, and I listened to them talk at lunch, about issues we had in common. I couldn’t afford to go to statewide conferences—I could barely pay the rent—but I decided to improvise.
For the next five or six years, I took a fake sick day, at least once a year. I called up music teachers whose work I admired and asked if I could spend the day observing their work. Nobody ever said no. I learned something valuable in each of those visits, but one visit—the first—was a standout.
The teacher—Al Johnston at Walled Lake Western HS—was the antithesis of the Lee Canter philosophy of teaching. Al spoke softly but directly to his students, without threats. He filled each hour with purposeful, pre-planned instruction—the kind where you set goals before class, rather than winging it. He was kind, and his students were, class after class, friendly and comfortable with classroom routines. He knew tons about band literature and told me he’d taken private lessons on instruments where his own skills were shaky—and he’d let the students know he was studying to shore up his weak spots.
After school, he asked if I’d like to see his home office. We went to his house, where his entire basement was filled with cardboard boxes, filing cabinets, LPs, tapes and a drafting table where he wrote marching shows. Everything was neatly labeled and at his fingertips. Wow, I said. You’re so organized. You can go a long, long way on organization, he said.
That was nearly forty years ago, but that one remark reshaped my teaching for years. I began to see everything I learned about being a better music teacher as an information nugget that should be readily retrievable. Sample materials, conducting techniques, tuning strategies, funny stories and memorable concert programs—filed and accessible. There was always something new to add. Stuff got taken out, too, as better ideas emerged.
This was prior to the advent of computers, of course. These days, there are unlimited freely accessible resources online, not the handful of books I relied on in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. There are online conversations involving hundreds of teachers, and videos of great student performances and lesson ideas.
One thing hasn’t changed, however. The people who know the most about what you do, the people who are most likely to move you forward in your quest to be a great teacher, build your personal portfolio of skills and ideas…are teachers.
But not according to Stacey Childress (@NextGenStacey) of NewSchools Venture Fund who is fretting over the fact that teachers have downloaded over one billion pieces of content from one website alone and are using teaching materials, willy-nilly, that have not been vetted by experts. You get a sense of her rising panic in this statement: Full-year comprehensive curricula are far from the only materials teachers use. Supplemental programs have been eating into full-year market share in a big way over the last 15 years.
Nearly every teacher surveyed—94%–said they’d used content they found online and a quarter of them find half their materials and lessons ideas there, generating more hand-wringing over the way these freebie materials are supplanting those prepared and vetted by ‘experts’ and offered in the Serious Marketplace of Curricula. Why are teachers resisting the expert-approved core materials and using their own—inexpensive, constantly updated–picks?
From NSVF’s survey: The core textbook was “too hard” and contained examples that were “not sufficiently engaging.” The quotation marks tell you all you need to know about NewSchools Venture Fund’s opinion of teacher judgment.
Further, teachers surveyed confessed that 81% of them trust teachers more than any other source, when it comes to choosing materials and designing lessons. Folks who propose adding expert ratings to popular lesson sharing sites are likely to be disappointed with the results. Teachers are far more influenced by each other than the judgments of experts.
You might wonder why teachers aren’t considered the ultimate experts at deciding what’s too hard (or too easy), or not engaging or downright useless. Why does NewSchools Venture Fund get to evaluate materials? Here’s their mission statement: We raise contributions from donors and use them to find, fund and support teams of educators and entrepreneurs who are reimagining learning so all children – especially those in underserved communities – have the opportunity to succeed.
In other words, they raise money so they can continue to exist, and influence the education marketplace one white paper at a time. Meanwhile, teachers are saving actual children, 180 days a year, including those in underserved communities.
Why do teachers trust each other? We know our students better than curriculum developers. Shared, teacher-created lessons have been battle-tested and tweaked, rather than aligned to easily tested standards. We are not granted professional autonomy so downloading something new to try can feel a bit like freedom. Developing our own lessons and materials depends on free or inexpensive sources of inspiration, as district resources go toward expensive published materials. A lot of the stuff we’ve been given is not working. Only another teacher can offer practice wisdom.
Thanks, Al. Before the internet, there was your friendship and advice. I owe you.