02/14/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Game Changers: Mark Sass


Read the introduction to Game Changers.

Today's Game Changer is Mark Sass. Mark has been a public high school teacher for 18 years in the Denver Metro area. He has had various leadership positions within his school and district, including this year, when he will teach and lead his district in implementing standards based grading.

How did you come to teaching?
Teaching was my third profession. After high school, I became a truck mechanic for Ford. I got tired of working with my hands and started dabbling into photography, eventually running a studio for about 10 years. After a while, I started to think about my impact. If I was going to have something written on my headstone, I didn't want it to be that I inspired people to change their fashions. I grew up in an education household--my dad was a teacher for 35 years and my sister works at NYU. I've always been immersed in the importance of education and it became something that I wanted to be involved in. Now I teach social studies to high school freshmen.

What's one major challenge you've seen in education that has moved you to act (and why)?
My experience has shown me that poverty is not the most important factor when it comes to what impacts student learning. The most important factor is the teacher and the most important characteristic of the teacher, when it comes to student learning, is the relationship between the student and the teacher. The challenge is to have teachers focus on this relationship while at the same time working for social justice so students do not need to come into school behind. When I entered the profession it was my mission to identify the inherent racism that permeated the educational system. But what I began to realize was that what was most important for me was to get students to become literate and critical thinkers who could then fight the good fight.

How would you like to advance the teaching profession?

I want to see the profession take on the responsibilities of teacher training, mentoring new teachers, evaluating experienced teachers, and getting involved in policies that impact their work. We need to behave more like lawyers, doctors, architects, nurses, engineers and on. Personally I want to continue to teach but also have time to work with other teachers, work with district, state, and national policy makers. I want teachers to think about the profession, as well as the education of their students, when they make decisions.

That kind of collaboration across stakeholders can be challenging. What steps have you taken to facilitate the collaboration of teachers within and across grade-levels?
The first step is to have the administration become a partner in the work. The work won't get done if there is not top-down support for ground level ideas. The next step usually causes eyeballs to roll back into teachers' heads--to have the entire school produce a mission and vision statement that guides your work. Most school mission statements are very similar but they are rarely addressed in the day-to-day work of teachers. Once teachers agree that it is the responsibility of all teachers to get ALL students to achieve at a high level, this gets teachers to see students outside of their classrooms as their responsibility as well. Cross grade level conversations begin to make sense.

What were some surprises or challenges you faced as you began to push for more collaboration at your school?
How difficult it is to challenge the status quo. In general, teachers do not like change. I assumed that teachers, working and thinking like other professions, were always in a state of challenging their practice--looking at new research and using data to inform decision making versus going with personal preference.

I learned that teachers need to be professionally challenged. This includes prodding not only from administration, but from their teacher colleagues as well. Something I learned very early is not to assume that teachers know how to facilitate hard conversations. That was one of our first professional development areas of focus.

You mentioned that you believe that teachers need to become more proactive. How so?
Teachers need to be more proactive in all areas of their profession. From policies that pertain to the workplace to policies that impact their practice in the classroom. All of this relies on teachers' continual interrogation of their work. Reflection on what could be done better. This happens when teachers realize that they are the most important variable in the classroom and not the student.

How can they do that? What would you say to teachers who feel that they won't be listened to?
This is a challenge in any profession--being listened to. Much of the problem lies in the fact that many teachers do not know how to constructively engage in hard conversations. Too many teachers I know believe that since they are doing the morally important job of being an educator, they should be given deference--that their words should be honored. It doesn't work that way. Some of the blame for this lay at the doorstep of our education colleges. Students are not given the opportunity to learn how to engage administrators, nor, and in my mind more importantly, their colleagues.

What has it been like to take on a leadership role while still teaching?
To engage in leadership responsibilities while teaching is hard work. But I think that if I was not in the classroom I would lose "street-cred" with my fellow teachers. Nothing more teachers dislike than having someone come in with new ideas without sharing the experience. This is an area that the profession needs to address. How can teachers assume leadership roles while staying in the classroom? This year I have a .6 FTE release to work with other teachers implementing standards-based grading.

What have you learned by becoming a teacher-leader?
I have learned that to be a leader you need to park your ego at the door and pick up a bulletproof vest--you are going to get challenged personally and professionally. But for many teachers I have found that they will take on challenges if given the room and space to try and fail. It is key to give teachers the time and resources to participate in action research.

What is one hope you have for education in the next few years?
I hope that this country can begin a serious and constructive dialogue about education. That all stakeholders stop the political tug of war and that we rely on well-constructed and reasoned arguments to make decisions. I am advocating that we take into account the perspectives of those whom we reflexively reject. In order for this to happen, both teachers and non-educators need to be involved. Teachers, we need to listen. In order to listen effectively, reactionary and defensive posturing will need to fall aside. We have to be open to the ideas of others rather than simply rejecting them because they may not be "real" educators. Teachers need to lead, but we need to listen as well. Non-educators, have some respect for the profession of teaching. After all, if the research informs us that teachers have the greatest impact in the classroom, why not help promote this by listening and taking teachers' voices seriously?

What advice would you give to teachers who are looking to be change-agents in or outside their classrooms?
It's the right thing to do.

Just for Fun

Biggest Pet Peeve?

Students who throw garbage on the floor.

First Job?

Delivering auto parts.

Teachers are... those that can.

Read more Game Changers.

Do you know an education Game Changer we should interview? Let us know.