In classrooms across the United States, students who study under the Common Core or similarly rigorous standards are being held to a higher level of expectations. Educational rhetoric has focused on making sure that American students are competitive in the global market, prompting politicians and administrators alike to create a new educational buzzword: rigor.
And yet, this push for rigor comes during another major push in education: supporting the social and emotional well-being of students. In the last few years, districts have been providing professional development around emotional disorders and more staff to counsel children with needs. There is a sense, especially in urban areas where the poverty levels affect students’ emotional health, that school should be a safe haven where students can feel accepted and therefore successful.
And herein lies the problem: How can teachers walk the fine line between pushing a child out of a comfort zone academically while still supporting her emotionally? How can teachers leave behind the “every child gets a trophy” mentality while still motivating those without trophies to grow and learn? How can we help all students, no matter what their learning style, feel successful when success under these new rigorous standards is measured only through a written exam?
The good news is that many of our most talented teachers are masters at navigating this seemingly impossible task. Even better news? There are opportunities for districts to hire these master teachers using Title II funds provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in order to share their wealth of knowledge with others.
Who Are These Master Teachers?
They are the educators who know how to motivate, engage and challenge every child. They know how to find that sweet spot where a child is able to grow, and to develop customized lessons that fit the child’s needs. They know how to find resources to differentiate instruction and reach above grade level and below grade-level learners. And they do this all without letting the students feel singled out or different.
In my school, many teachers are doing an extraordinary job of balancing emotional well-being with educational progress. Our entire seventh-grade team has become adept at using data to create working groups in each class that address each child’s challenge level. The students move around to differentiated “stations.” The groups are constantly changing depending on the standard being addressed. In this way, the students do not know that they have been grouped by ability.
Our writing teacher has a system for one-on-one conferencing and revising essays that is based on creating individualized goals for each assignment. Our science teacher is able to figure out what a child’s home life is like in the first three weeks of school without being intrusive; then she chooses five students to “adopt” for the year. These five become part of her mandatory after-school homework zone where she is able to give them the support and quiet space they might not have at home.
Our combined efforts have proven effective. The PARCC data for the last few years shows extraordinary growth. In English language arts last year, 42 percent of the grade scored in the advanced category in a school whose scores are normally severely impacted by the high number of students living below the poverty line.
What Title II Could Do for Teachers and Students
This team of teachers has found a way to create their own system to address emotionally fragile students who may start to lag behind when we push them too far too fast in the hopes of meeting rigorous standards.
More than ever in these confusing times, we need to harness the power and expertise of these master teachers. We need to find the truly inspiring educators and empower them to share their knowledge with their peers. We need to give struggling teachers models for how to organize lessons and reach students. In short, we need to create more schools that have teacher leaders and a career track for teachers to advance.
Thankfully, districts have the ability to do just that: to create programs that promote teacher growth and leadership under the Every Student Succeeds Act, whose Title II regulations authorize the federal government to provide over $2.2 billion dollars each year to states in order to strengthen and improve the teaching profession. This means that school systems have access to funds needed to promote teacher growth, especially in challenging areas such as the tug of war between emotional health and rigorous learning.
If districts are able to apply these funds toward teacher-led professional development, teacher liaisons to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and other teacher leadership positions, master teachers will be able to share their hard-won strategies, and their expertise will have a wider reach than just their own classrooms. With strong teacher voices and exemplars, the balancing act suddenly seems manageable.