Transform Your Teaching Practice, and Become a “SuperTero”

By Caitlin

If you’re a new or aspiring teacher, chances are you’ve had an educator make a major difference in your life. You know in your bones, just like so many of this nation’s students, that an extraordinary teacher in a classroom can be more powerful than almost any other factor in a child’s educational life.

A growing body of research supports this notion, which means that not only are teachers starting to get recognition for the powerful work they do every single day, but administrators are starting to turn the pressure on. Today’s teachers are poised to meet — and exceed — the demands of that pressure, while working together to build the supports they need to stay successful for years to come.

Research and Resources: Highlights From the Headlines

Teaching is demanding work, from lesson planning to parent calls to showing up for community events, so we don’t blame you if you’re not totally up to date on the latest research and reportage on teaching practice, recruitment and retention. We’ve scoured the headlines for highlights to share to bolster your commitment to this profession and give you a grounded perspective on the challenges — and triumphs — that await extraordinary teachers.

Former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who served from 2009 to early 2016, wrote a piece toward the end of his tenure with the U.S. Department of Education titled “Why Teaching Is the Most Important Profession” — and we couldn’t agree more. Writes Duncan:

“With the transition to more rigorous achievement standards and better student assessments, a focus on data to drive instruction, and the use of technology to personalize learning, teachers are carrying an incredible amount of responsibility. It’s because of the teachers across the country who I’ve seen stepping up to the challenge that I am more optimistic about the state of the teaching profession than ever.”

Duncan goes on to cite examples of educators around the country who are going above and beyond for their students and seeking out new opportunities to learn, grow and lead others. Duncan points to the initiative Teach to Lead, which offers teachers the chance to develop their leadership skills while still remaining in their role as classroom teachers. This is a shift from the more traditional model of transitioning quality teachers away from the blackboard and into a more administrative role, instead of allowing them to bloom into master teachers. As the issue of attrition comes into national focus, however, we hope more administrators recognize the importance of keeping strong teachers where they belong — in the classroom, armed with ample support and guidance.

Duncan echoes this belief in his closing, which reiterates his confidence in the future of teaching: “Education is being put back into the hands of teachers. I know that this work will take time, but it will get easier as teachers lead the change and as school leaders and others provide teachers with the time and training to equip educators as agents of change.”

Equipping educators to be agents of change is a lofty goal, but there are still some basic barriers we must get past when it comes to recruiting, supporting and retaining young teachers of color. A 2016 report put out by the The Education Trust looks at the strengths and challenges specific to teachers of color in the classroom. Titled “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections From Black Teachers,” the report shares insight gleaned from focus groups with 150 teachers in both public and public charter schools across seven states.

Key takeaways from this report include the de-sire teachers of color have to grow and develop their practice, specifically around more rigorous content: “Teachers told us that they rarely get an opportunity to advance to teaching courses that recognize them as subject matter experts, such as honors or Advanced Placement. This was frustrating because they want to learn to teach new things and enhance their professional skills.” In other words, the teachers surveyed were longing to become SuperTeros in a major way, but were not always receiving the support and opportunities they needed to do so.

This support can make a world of difference when it comes to keeping teachers of color motivated and inspired in the classroom. Another recent report put out by the Albert Shanker Institute, “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” shares the positive news that “nationally, minority teachers are being hired at a higher proportional rate than other teachers.” This is exciting news indeed, but unfortunately, the report also makes clear that teachers of color are also leaving the profession at higher rates. The reason? Too often, teachers aren’t being given the support and recognition they need to grow their skills and confidence and become a true SuperTero.

So, what can we learn from those SuperTeros who have succeeded and stayed in the classroom as a beacon for those who follow?

Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of the Year at Inaugural VEA Teachers of Color Summit – University Photographer: Ayasha Sledge, Virginia Union University

SuperTero Spotlight: Jahana Hayes

In a recent interview with the National Educa-tion Association, Connecticut teacher Jahana Hayes, who was just awarded the 2016 National Teacher of the Year Award, spoke to her own experience coming up as a young teacher of color.

Says Hayes, “It can be so lonely and you can feel so unsupported that you decide to leave the profession. New teachers need someone to hold their hand. I had so many people who have held my hand and now I’m just paying it back.” Hayes’ commitment to supporting new teachers who need that extra boost is one of many reasons why we consider her a SuperTero powerhouse!

In addition, Hayes is unafraid to bring the outside world into the classroom to spark discussion among students about the issues that really matter. Her advice to new teachers who want to become an agent of change? “When a social injustice grabs the headlines, I’d tell educators to first pause and reflect … it’s important to create an environment where kids feel comfortable enough to have these conversations. Creating that space is ongoing and is embedded in everything we do in class.”

For budding SuperTeros who aren’t sure how to get started on their path, Hayes also offers some insight into how to reach those students and/or community members who remain on the fringes. Having an engaged, involved classroom community is not only a great way to increase student achievement, but it can also help your own sense of accomplishment, pride and job satisfaction. Says Hayes, “Teachers … need to understand the value of what happens outside of the classroom. In my community, I visited all of the churches and talked to all of the pastors as I was trying to engage minorities. If I’m trying to connect with people who haven’t been part of the conversation and I know they hang out at church, then I’m going to church to see them.”

As a parent, Hayes has also been on the other side of the teacher-community equation. She shares a personal anecdote about a teacher characterizing her young son of color as “defiant” when he was overly enthusiastic about sharing an answer in math class. Hayes not only advocat-ed her son, she also uses her national platform as an award-winning teacher to illustrate that teachers must be very careful to not infuse their instruction and classroom management with unconscious bias. “As educators we have to be very careful about the words we use. We must be purposeful in our actions and words.”

Purposeful, community minded and unafraid to reach out to help others or start a meaning-ful conversation about justice — those are just a few of the things we think make a great SuperTero! Shifting your mindset from just becoming a teacher to becoming an extraordinary teacher can not only make your students more successful, it can also lead to a powerful shift in how you view — well — everything. When teachers care and put that caring into action, communities take notice. If you’re truly ready to “be the change,” remember that you are doing so in the company of teachers across the nation and the globe. Together, when we commit to values of justice, academic excellence and wraparound support for students and educators alike, we can begin to transform our culture from the inside out, and become a safer, smarter and stronger society. May 2017 be the Year of the SuperTero!