THE BLOG

Hopeful Teaching and Learning: The One Who Makes a Difference

08/26/2014 09:15 am ET | Updated Oct 26, 2014
  • Eric Cooper Founder, President of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education

If 2013 is any indication, then we can expect approximately 56 million children to go "back to school" in an American elementary or secondary school, by early September. And when these students walk through the classroom doors, more than 3.7 million teachers -- their partners in learning -- will be there to greet them.

All in all, American public, charter and private school teachers are highly experienced, well-practiced professionals. Nearly 40 percent have 15 or more years of teaching experience; only 11.3 percent have four years or fewer. Practically all had some sort of professional development during the previous school year: Almost 85 percent had enrichment in subjects they taught; and more than half participated in professional development that involved reading instruction.

But as America's educators prepare to make more positive differences for children this school year, a part of me hopes teachers are guided by their hearts -- as well as their heads.

Yvette Jackson, my colleague at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, calls it rediscovering "the glow." With all of the emphasis on teaching answers to specific tests so we can help children raise test scores, I believe teachers need "the glow" -- now maybe more than ever.

As Dr. Jackson writes: "Remember what it was about you that made you feel you had something to offer students to help them learn. What was that something? Remember that first year of teaching and the hope that generated your desire to reach students. What did that motivate you to do?"

Remember your first concrete evidence of success and how it tweaked your passion and emboldened you to use your gifts to unlock the gifts in your students? What were those gifts you acted on?

Remember the student for whom you had the most profound impact. How did you engage them? What did it feel like when you realized you had in fact made an impact? Remember your strengths, your skills, your attributes, your passion?"

First-year teachers typically say they entered the field to further social justice and the pursuit of learning. Jeffrey Aaron Snyder suggests many new and seasoned teachers feel an "...impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves."

Like Dr. Jackson, I want teachers to remember their early years in teaching and return to what drew them to the field in the first place.

This spark enables teachers to reach those first students who make a difference in their professional lives. That success, in turn, becomes an important part of their foundation as teachers and informs their early teaching styles.

Their approach to teaching might have changed over the years, informed by experience or other factors. That's to be expected. However, there is a bit of magic that allows teachers in their early years to connect with students in a powerful way -- to be "the one" their students were waiting for.

When treated like the authorities they are and supported by sustained professional development, many teachers never lose the passion, skills or talent that drove their early success. When that professional development is guided by best practice, and cognitive and neuroscience research, we now know that the results help all students to achieve. Yet too often, we also know that state and national policies lead to an over-emphasis on test preparation -- robbing students of engaged academic learning about real-world, higher-order skills such as creativity and problem-solving.

To become "the one the students have been waiting for" begins with the belief and expectation that all students have a unique talent and gift waiting to be uncovered. Belief and expectation are the key elements of hope. As Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School wrote in his book, The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail In The Face of Illness, "...hope can be imagined as a domino effect, a chain reaction in which each link makes improvement more likely. It changes us profoundly in spirit and in body."

As the school year begins, students trust that their teachers will guide them toward hope -- defined by Dr. Groopman as "...the elevating feeling we experience when we see -- in the mind's eye -- a path to a better future."

May teachers seeking to rekindle their passion for the job regain the spark that ignites a transformed learning environment -- one where educators, parents and students collectively work to improve opportunities for all young people.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.