Can teachers give away what they don’t have?

Dennis Sparks

• Is it possible for teachers to create classroom cultures of high-cognitive engagement if their own meetings and professional development require little intellectual engagement?

• Is it possible for teachers in a school with incoherent, fragmented improvement efforts to create coherent, focused instruction in their classrooms?

• Is it possible for teachers who work in professional isolation to create classrooms with high-levels of student cooperation?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But, it’s a qualified yes.

Within every school—not matter how problematic its culture and structures may be—there are teachers who rise above the circumstances of their environment.

But if the goal is quality teaching and learning in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then the bar for intellectual engagement and meaningful collaboration in faculty meetings, school culture, and professional development is set much higher.

Put another way, a school faculty cannot give away what it doesn’t experience on a regular basis in the professional culture of the school.

Do you agree? 

11 Responses to “Can teachers give away what they don’t have?”


  1. 1 Jamie April 16, 2014 at 6:18 am

    What a thought provoking question. I just happened to have dinner with a group of teachers in a school that has sunk from its previously intellectually and stimulating environment to one where there is distrust, retaliation, and a severe lack of professional development or inspiration. Since the teachers know what it feels like to be supported, challenged, and energized they are having a really hard time. With that said, they are all true professionals and seem to be continuing to do their best by gaining the support they need from one another. So, I guess my answer is that it is colleagues who can help teachers to continue to give away what they aren’t getting.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks April 16, 2014 at 7:36 am

      I appreciate your comment, Jamie. I think that teachers can make a significant contribution to the conditions I described in my post. But I am not confident that such efforts always affect all of the teachers in a school and that in the absence of skillful leadership can be sustained over long periods of time.

  2. 3 Lmacdonald April 16, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Yes, I agree. There are “shining” teachers in underperforming schools and/or schools with low engagement. They are gifts to the students, parents and school community. In a school with built-in collaboration they could be a gift to the other teachers too. Many schools, even those considered successful by a list of standards, have one or two teachers that stand out amongst the others. The challenge is creating an environment where other teachers will “want what they GOT”. It seems to me that mediocracy is considered ok for too many educators. A teacher that stands out has usually accepted the fact that teaching is a way of life, not a day job. They embrace their position and think about their students most always. As principals we need to seek out the candidates that enjoy their work passionately, they are the ones that will put in he extra time because they enjoy their craft enough to do that. I would never expect teachers to give up personal time for work, but it’s an unsaid key to success in my book and I pay attention and will seek out the candidates that put in that extra time. Then, you just observe carefully and make sure they are balanced to protect them from burn out.

  3. 4 eeisenberg1 April 16, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    It is true that a school climate reflects the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of the school community and effective leadership. It is also true that teacher leaders rise to the challenges of life-long learning every single day. These teacher leaders engage in professional conversations that center around student growth and learning in deliberate and intentional ways and are sustained and supported by colleagues. Classroom cultures are transformed all the time; this is really about the members in a community of practice and learning. There must be a shared vision that can be supported by all the members of the community and practiced regularly in a no-risk environment. The message that learning is important comes from the top down and the bottom up. Creating an environment that is conducive to ongoing learning and expresses that philosophy by practice is what makes the difference in teaching and learning.

  4. 5 sterlinghurley April 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Completely agree. Great post.

  5. 7 Wanda Dean April 21, 2014 at 8:14 am

    What a thought provoking way to start my week. This will change some of the conversations I have with PLCs, faculties, and principals. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. 9 Rita April 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    They can, they have and they do rise above the circumstances. However if this goes on for 2-3 years and more the environment of the school will continue to decline and the body of students and faculty will gradually change as more people burn out or find other places to grow.

  7. 10 hbw11 June 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I just stumbled upon this blog today and have really enjoyed perusing the range of topics discussed. This particular post on teachers giving away what they don’t have has struck a chord with me. I teach and am a science department chair in a large, diverse urban/suburban high school with significant challenges related to achievement. I often wonder about what it would take to establish a “critical mass” of highly effective teachers who could affect change from the inside out. As we bring the first year of teacher evaluation reform to a close, it is with little surprise to see that the time, money and energy put into goal setting, observations and mountains of paperwork has, in reality, done little to improve teacher practice and student outcomes. The department chairs in our school are looking for ways to drive instructional change from within, by capitalizing on the strengths and successes that exist in each of our departments, creating a culture of sharing and collaboration, and ideally, motivating other teachers to upping their games. The inequity that results from having isolated classroom “islands” of great teaching and learning is a problem. A school’s vision statement, with the words “All students…” throughout, should not be deceptive advertising!

    • 11 Dennis Sparks June 22, 2014 at 1:35 pm

      I really appreciate your well-considered response to my post! As you noted, significant improvements will not come from an improved teacher evaluation process. Your plan of action, in my experience, is the key: “The department chairs in our school are looking for ways to drive instructional change from within, by capitalizing on the strengths and successes that exist in each of our departments, creating a culture of sharing and collaboration….” My best wishes for your success.


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