In our last blog, we introduced our Little Engine That Could -- Environmental Charter Schools (ECS), a small charter school network in south Los Angeles -- where we have seen tremendous student outcomes. We explained how the success at our first school, Environmental Charter High School (ECHS), has really been attributable to hard work, rather than fanciful concepts. The natural follow-up question is: "OK, but how did you get everyone to do the hard work?" While nearly everyone at the school works hard (including the students), the most consequential workers are the teachers. Simply put, our teachers are amazing. But our school is not simply lucky to have great teachers; finding them, supporting them, and keeping them is all by design, and serves as a blueprint for similar success.
Finding good teachers. We look in all the usual places for new teachers -- online job listings, teacher fairs, graduate schools of education, Teach for America. But, we employ a fairly involved "courting" process before making an offer. We really want to make sure that new teachers share our passion for the school's mission before investing in them. Prospective teachers visit the school, talk with teachers and students, and get a feel for our unique culture. Then, they come back and teach a lesson in a class with real students; students are then asked for their assessment of the candidate. Only then do we conduct the interview, which is more like a group of people sitting around talking about teaching and learning. This process leads to a much more meaningful interview for everyone. The candidate's prior sample lesson with our students helps both the candidate and the interviewers by providing a shared context. We believe that everyone comes away with a fairly good sense of the candidate and the candidate gets a real feel for what it is like to teach at the school. No one likes a bait and switch.
Supporting good teachers. It turns out that it's not just students who benefit from a small learning community; teachers thrive as well. Most of the professional development time is used for teachers to work together in a professional learning community, to plan lessons, analyze student work, observe one another teach, and model best practices. The collaborative process creates a culture of shared ownership for the school and student achievement; everyone's success is interconnected. Collaboration also makes it painfully clear when a teacher is not pulling their weight. The response is intense intervention and most teachers have responded with phenomenal effort and growth. In the rare case of a teacher being unwilling or unable to put in the work to improve their practice, he or she will typically choose to leave the school or will be counseled out. It's a matter of resources, and students' needs always come first.
Keeping good teachers. At ECS, we believe that you keep good teachers by keeping them happy. And if we've done a good job at finding the right teachers and creating a vibrant professional learning community, then keeping them happy is easy. Good teachers, like many other professionals, are willing to work hard and are even willing to make less than they would in other jobs, but they will not stick around if they feel underappreciated or inconsequential. We show our appreciation by honoring teachers' professional aspirations and passions. Every person in a leadership position at our schools was once an Environmental Charter Schools teacher. Teachers' desire to create, lead, and innovate is encouraged and rewarded with responsibility and accountability. Teachers' ideas for projects, programs, and fieldtrips are welcomed with resources and support, not squashed by bureaucratic barriers. We invest energy and resources into our teachers and it is our students who are rewarded with experienced and skilled teachers and a strong sense of school culture.
A "culture of success" is something that can be ephemeral and difficult to measure, but is usually the difference between a good school and a struggling one. And a culture of sustained success would be nearly impossible with a high rate of teacher turn-over, an affliction suffered by so many schools. While nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, ECHS has enjoyed a very high teacher retention rate, and the benefits of this are evident in our students' achievement.
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