Fierce words, for sure. But the underlying sentiment is a common complaint: Education reform is often done to teachers and schools rather than with them. Yet there are several organizations in the education policy world that try to improve student outcomes by working closely with teachers—organizations like Teach Plus.
That’s why I reached out to Michael Savoy, a national coach with Teach Plus. Michael is a former teacher who went on to work for DC VOICE and Pearson. He’s also done research on the role of users (teachers, students, and parents) in designing education processes. When he arrived at Teach Plus last year, he brought years of experience working with teachers, as a colleague and as a collaborator.
Michael started at Teach Plus as a leadership coach for the T3 (Turnaround Teacher Teams) initiative, where he worked with exceptional teachers who wanted to lead others without leaving the classroom. He coached teachers to develop and facilitate high-functioning, high-impact grade-level or content team meetings. In his current position, Michael plays a similar role but helps teachers facilitate group-learning sessions on topics related to the Common Core.
He’d also be more than happy to be stranded on the MARC, is father to both Pinky and the Brain, and called me out for being imprecise. Overall, an excellent conversation. Check it out below.
In-the-classroom teacher leadership roles are receiving more and more attention as a way to reward effective teachers without taking them away from students. How does Teach Plus fit into those efforts?
Teach Plus started at the policy level, advocating for policies that allowed teachers to do a better job. T3 and C2 grew out of that. These initiatives identify effective teachers, who are great educators in the classroom and demonstrate the building blocks for great teacher leadership. We take the existing best practices of great teachers and coach them to facilitate opportunities to share those practices.
Teacher leaders often do this on the side anyway, but because they’re in the classroom, it’s a lot of extra work. These teachers don’t really have the time to do everything they want to do. That’s where the Teach Plus coach comes in. Our work is based on the teacher’s own practice, so we don’t bring in extra work — we bring in extra time.
In the C2 initiative, for example, teacher leaders determine what Common Core topics we cover. When teachers apply, they answer the question, “What have you done in your classroom around Common Core that you want to share?” We’re not necessarily bringing any new content; we’re facilitating the conversation. Designed by teachers, developed by teachers, facilitated by teachers, for teachers.
There's often a tense reformer vs. teacher narrative in education policy that assumes that teachers and reformers exist in mutually exclusive spheres. Throughout your career you've straddled these two worlds. What tough love feedback would you give the loudest voices on both sides?
As with most social issues, the loudest voices are the ones heard the most. But there is typically always a middle ground that gets drowned out by the noise. My tough love feedback for both is to not-so-narrowly define who you are. The narrative assumes that teachers don’t want to reform and reformers aren’t teachers. If change is to be made, we all have to take on both reformer and teacher characteristics. That’s where the middle is. It starts with everyone suspending the notion that they alone have all the answers.
You’ve done some research on user-design in education. What is it?
The idea behind user-design is that the users of a system are key to the design process, if not the principle designers of that system. Parents, students, local business leaders, and various other stakeholders have to have a hand in the design of their education system in order for it to better work for them.
How have you seen user-design research play out?
Right now, school districts are user-centered. People from outside the classroom make decisions with teachers and students as the focus, but teachers and students (the users) aren’t involved in the actual decision-making process. User-design allows the users to be an intimate part of the design. Potential decisions are tried out with kids and teachers. Or the problem is identified by the users — in this case, teachers would say, “This is a problem. We’re going to figure out how to solve it.”
Schools and districts should consider opening up their decision-making to stakeholders, not just for feedback on decisions that are typically already made, but in defining the problem and understanding the design and implementation from the ground up.
This isn’t easily done, though. It becomes about who holds the power and the reluctance of those with the power to engage users in decision-making. But given what we’ve seen with stakeholders being more and more disenfranchised by the education system, something has to change. It’s currently a fight for power rather than a sharing of decisions.
Two more super serious questions. You're stranded on the MARC for four hours. You can bring any two items you want. How do you entertain yourself?
Wow, four hours of uninterrupted time? Well, considering how busy home life is these days, first I would love to have a good book on close reading, my latest professional passion, so that I can actually get through it. Second, I’d want my phone so I can keep up with all my Words With Friends games.
Right - you have twins! Your home life must be a little nuts. Any anecdotes to share?
Well the twins came very early — 3 months early — so their lives started out pretty precariously. It’s been great to see them develop their unique personalities. They are living examples of “The Tortoise and the Hare” or Pinky and the Brain. Alton is always on the go, without fear, and Olivia is steady and careful. She’ll be the mastermind for the things that get him in trouble.
Ashley Mitchel is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Reach her via email or Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about Teach Plus’ T3 initiative or C2 sessions, email Michael here.