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From Good To Great

September 16, 2013

Last week, the Alberta Government through the Ministry of Education, announced the creation of a Task Force for Teaching Excellence (http://www.teachers.ab.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ATA/News-Room/2013/Terms%20of%20Reference.pdf, http://alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=3494688E638B3-F818-2042-38963D68FB752D43). According to Alberta Education the Task Force for Teaching Excellence will “explore new directions for supporting excellence in teachers and other educators. Through consultations with parents, students, teachers, support staff, school leaders, stakeholders, community and business representatives and all interested Albertans, the task force will provide recommendations for the future of the teaching profession in Alberta” (http://alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=3494688E638B3-F818-2042-38963D68FB752D43, Retrieved September, 16). The creation of this task force and conversations with other teachers and administrators had me thinking about what teaching excellence means and what makes schools great.

My first stop in working through this question was my PLN on Twitter. I posed the question to a few folks “what makes a school great?” I received a wide array of answers to this question, however a common theme came through. Great schools and excellent teachers are caring, supportive communities where everyone is able to take educational risks. This theme resonated with me. I know from personal experience that my students are willing to take positive risks in their learning if they feel capable, connected and cared for. They know they can go out on a limb and try something unique because they are supported in the process. Therefore,  an excellent teacher, and great schools, must ensure that all students are connected to the process of learning and to networks which help them take risks in their learning. To me, this speaks to the concept of authenticity and David Truss’ ideas about providing students with an audience to present their work.  It also speaks to the ideas of Will Richardson and Laurel Beaton regarding the fostering of relationships to collaboratively solve problems in a cross cultural manner. Moreover, excellent teachers and great schools must ensure that students feel cared for and feel safe. No student, regardless of how connected they are, will be able to take learning risks if they do not feel safe.

While many of the responses I received fit the above theme, I received two responses that went into a bit more depth. Joe Bower (@joe_bower, http://www.joebower.org) sent me a blog post he wrote earlier this year. Joe Bower suggests great schools are:
  • Safe
  • Fun
  • Promote the Thrill of Discovery
  • Student Self-Efficacy
  • Encourage Formative Feedback
  • Provide Constructed and Connected Learning
  • Utilize Encouragement and Guidance
  • Have opportunities for Celebration and Reflection

Clearly, the theme of safe schools is woven throughout Joe’s thoughts. Again, so many of these ideas connect back to the ideas of authentic learning. I can definitely support these components of Joe’s great schools and will incorporate them into my practice throughout the year. I can see how these components would improve my classroom and help me further establish authentic learning opportunities for my grade 12 students.

A second response that went beyond the general theme of the responses came from Phil McRae (@philmcrae), an Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Adjunct Professor within the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. Phil sent me a document titled A Great School For All: Transforming Education in Alberta, a research document put out by the Alberta Teachers Association (http://www.teachers.ab.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ATA/Publications/Research/PD-86-26%20A%20Great%20School%20for%20All-Transforming%20Education%20in%20Alberta.pdf). The document is a very interesting read for anyone who has an interest in education reform in Alberta. One of the key themes that comes through the document is that effective school reform must focus on “developing the professional capital of teachers in three domains: human, social and decisional.” The Great School for All document suggests that teachers must be the heart of effective school reform. The professional development of teachers is paramount in this equation. Further, the document goes on to reinforce the idea that students must have an equal opportunity to learn. In this way, great schools foster community and connection, collaboration and creativity. Teachers must be supported in taking professional risks in the same way students are supported in taking learning risks. As well, teachers must be given time and opportunities to collaborate and problem solve in a connected community. Again there are so many connections between these ideas and the ideas of authentic learning.

There are a number of other areas touched on by the document, but, one that really struck a chord dealt more with the process of improving schools than what must be present in great schools and great teachers. The Great Schools for All document suggests that change in education should not be system wide. It promotes the idea that effective, long lasting school reform must take place at the school level. Individual schools must be given the opportunity to focus on great teaching. Change that comes from the top down will not be effective nor long lasting. This is interesting in light of the creation of Alberta Education’s Task Force for Effective Teaching. This task force will determine what constitutes effective teaching, how to encourage teachers to be effective, and draft a plan to promote system wide effective teaching practices. What is really interesting about this is the Alberta government completely cut funding to a program designed to promote effective teaching at a local school level when they cut funding to the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. Now, they have created a task force to seemingly achieve the same goal. I’m not suggesting the task force will not achieve its goal or result in something worthwhile. In fact, as soon as I heard about it I signed up and contacted my MLA who is one of the members of the task force. I just find it curious that the government is going to spend so much money when they already cut a great deal of funding.
So, how to we go from good to great? It would seem to me that greatness in schools and teaching comes down to ensuring teachers collaborate with networks both in the school and beyond the walls of the school. That students feel connected, capable, and cared for and are able to take educational risks in a supportive and safe environment. Great schools ensure that students are also connected beyond the walls of their classroom and promote authentic learning opportunities. My only other question is, if I can come up with this through the help of my connected PLC, why does the government need to spend a few thousand dollars?
Comments and feedback is always greatly appreciated.
Have a great day,
Sean
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