Trust Teachers First

An interview with Emily Miller, teacher leader.

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Last Saturday I attended a workshop centered on a pair of wonderful presenters discussing “Using the Practices of the Next Generation Science Standards to Inform Equitable Practices in Teaching.”

One of our presenters, Emily Miller, was introduced as a teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. Emily was a part of the NGSS Writing and Diversity & Equity teams, and travels around talking about her work. She is consulting for two grants, one with Joe Krajcik and the Lucas Foundation, and another with Okhee Lee, Guadalupe Valdes and Lorena Llosa for NSF. She’s also working toward a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, and is active in local conservation. Oh yeah, and she has four kids.

A teacher leader in every sense of the phrase.

As she and I talked at the end of the session and I knew I wanted to share her thoughts on teacher leadership. She graciously continued the discussion via email.

Emily’s thoughts on the challenges of teacher leadership...

The biggest challenge, in my mind, is the deficit model that many people tacitly take toward teachers. Instead of starting with our strengths there is a tendency to measure us against an ideal that is unspecified, unrealistic and not ultimately respectful of us a creative, intelligent and really diverse people.

People who are so-called experts in teaching often are experts in theory of teaching, rather than practice. They may have the goal of bottling our practice, and they try to dilute this incredible creative skill into a rubric, or checklist. (Or they may be experts in data measurement or policy.) This model of seeing expertise as residing primarily outside of the teacher is problematic.

On the reality of teachers and teaching

This is bizarre to say, but teachers are actually people. We have really different lives and interests, strengths and personalities. And each teacher brings something unique to the classroom that will ultimately not look the same. Every teacher knows that wonderful teaching manifests really differently.

Teachers know that teachers with really different approaches can be very successful. Keep in mind, though, that each teacher defines success according to the kids they have right now, the goals they have for themselves in their practice right now, and the community they are part of building (both in the school and outside the school). Also success is relative. Your personal goals for one class, might be different the next hour, the next week, or the next year.

Each teacher's goals take into account that particular classroom community and all the personalities and different relationships that make up that one classroom. And then, of course, there is the subject matter, SEL, discourse, and cultural and linguistic goals, the teacher's goals for society, and their goals for the school and community at large. And then, imagine, we need to write an "I Can" statement that corresponds to the Common Core only!

On changing how we approach teacher value and evaluation...

I had a colleague who told me that it was lucky that the "walk through" happened third hour and not fourth hour, because he was a highly effective teacher for third hour, but fourth hour was a disaster. How can we align this picture of reality with evaluation?!

I find that this attempt to problematize teachers in the equation, and measure "our value" in terms of student scores, make us doubt our practice, deligitimatizes who we are, and encourages a destructive climate of competition and isolation. Start with what we all bring -- a devotion to kids and learning, and commitment to our community. Next, find out where we want to go next, how we want to grow, and how we actually measure success.

I would like to see a world where teaching is seen as indicative of intelligence and creativity. Not everyone can survive in a classroom! Just like we see a physicist and say, "Wow, they are a scientist, they must be smart." I want the take on teachers to be, "Wow, how do they do that, they must be very smart and creative!" Instead of, "Oh, they are a teacher? They probably need to make major shifts in their practice."

On teacher coaching as a PD practice...

More teachers can be teacher coaches. The position of coaching -- which involves reflecting on practice, providing constructive feedback with others and their practice, and researching and implementing best practice-- should be revolving in schools. The idea that there is intensive training that goes along with coaching, which only certain teachers can handle, is part of this bottling of practice, and deficit idea. I think many teachers would benefit from coaching their colleagues, and also that most teachers would benefit from working with diverse teachers with diverse perspectives and strengths.

Often, the position of teacher coach is seen as elevated above teachers and that is not right, in my mind. Coaching should be a conversation among equal colleagues and the teacher should be able to respond to the coach as an equal partner. They should be able to say, "This is working for me right now". "I am needing this kind of support right now." And also, "What you are suggesting is actually not where I want to go." Trust teachers first, and just as kids need a safe environment to challenge themselves and grow, so do teachers!


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This is awesome!  I am so very interested in how we might establish human centered metrics for teaching evaluation instead of the "deficit model"  Emily describes. AND SOOO LOVE the idea of positioning PD as peer coaching and practice instead of  evaluation.  Thanks for sharing!!!!

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