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What does this mean for #phillyeducation?

Written by Christina Cantrill
February 13, 2014

Turning then again to those who have been studying and engaging with teachers networks, McDonald, Buchanan and Sterling write:

At the heart of educational reform, we believe, is the challenge of encouraging practitioners, at all levels, to face the risk of undergoing real change. It is a challenge that does not go away when the reform is scaled up. … For this reason, scaling up reform involves preparation for risk-taking thousands of times over. … [and to do this] reformers must be prepared to provide opportunities and support. They may also need to displace some of their own beliefs and habits. For example, they may be forced to recognize that reform is ultimately personal, rather than merely technical, and that its usual targets—namely teachers—must also be regarded as its ultimate agents.

I would say that the majority of the teachers networking in Philadelphia who responded to my survey see themselves as agents. Anissa Weinraub, Philadelphia teacher and TAG organizer, for example, describes this in her calls for teacher collection action where she actively encourages networked teachers to take on different aspects of the collective work of “defending and transforming” such as curriculum, teaching and learning, school structures and well as movement building/political work (Celebration of Writing and Literacy keynote, October 2013).

PCAPS too calls for teacher organizing/networking as key piece of building collective capacity through the development of professional learning communities (referred to often as PLCs):

Thus, to facilitate intensive capacity-building, district leaders and administrators should continue to promote and expand the creation of Professional Learning Communities, which are teams of teachers—grouped by grade level, subject area or common interests—who dedicate in-school time to work together to bolster their practice. … This type of intensive professional development, directed at building collective capacity, is critical to producing significant school improvement.

And Teachers Lead Philly are currently highlighting this quote on their website alongside links to their proposal for teacher evaluation and related research findings:

“I have no problem having my effectiveness evaluated, but I do have a problem with my teaching effectiveness being based on factors that are not related to my teaching. It’s like evaluating a surgeon based on the hospital’s cafeteria food!” – Philly art teacher, Rob Krauss

Teacher networking, of course, is not a panacea and while capacity can be built for change, conditions for things to be changed also need to be fostered. In class, Dina Portnoy talked about the personal and professional capacity that she raised through her networking work both within a teacher-led school as well as with PhilWP. However in responding to a question about hotly contested seniority issues being discussed in Philadelphia now, she stressed the difference in discussing such issues within a context, like she experienced, where teachers had autonomy in their practice versus discussing them in them in the context of austerity measures which we find #phillyeducation mired in today. In a similar way, Helen Gym of Parents United for Change often reminds us of the key importance of a focus on teaching and learning and calls for conditions of stability to be established to allow for this:

As a district, we need to focus on teaching and learning. Districts that have successfully turned themselves around invest in their staff as educational professionals who find teaching a sustainable and respected profession. We need to stop the churn in our public schools, the high turnover of teachers and principals, the rapid opening and closing of schools, in order to stabilize school communities, focus our priorities, and learn from our mistakes.

This, I believe, is where the call for ongoing political work and movement building by groups like TAG, Philadelphia Student Union and Parents United is also key. A topic for another time, essentially, but the balance of policy, curriculum and activism is essential for building environments for networked teachers to build and thrive. As one of the teachers who responded to me wrote:

The focus of many teachers is first survival in the balancing act required between the classroom and their personal lives. This balancing act eliminates many teachers from extensive strategic networking. However, some visionaries find their way to become leaders of a grassroots effort. One benefit of teaching in Philadelphia–a BIG benefit–is the quality of some of those grassroots efforts.

Another responded:

Building a network of teacher activists is a great way to create change on a systematic level to improve the future of our students’ educations. Building teacher relationships builds power and we can use this power to create change around education reform.

“Both top-down support and bottom-up reform are needed” Linda Darling-Hammond writes, “orchestrated in a call-and-response that builds capacity by providing resources and leveraging genuine accountability for school learning.” (327) Teachers have a primary role in this, and therefore should be supported in their efforts to organize, learn and advance their collective capacity as professionals and leaders in education reform and connected learning. And I believe too that teacher networks, of which I am a also a part, need to focus on their capacity building to foster the full range of diversity of why teachers network as well as think about ways that this diversity can be fostered among the full range of educators. There is much work ahead but also many resources to draw from as a community.

(Special thanks to Judy Buchanan, Sam Reed, Len Reiser, Shelley Yanoff and Anissa Weinraub for assistance and inspiration on this project.)