Dr. Harry Wong is one of the most respected and referenced individuals in the field of education reform. He will be a featured speaker and will conduct a breakout workshop during the Eighth Annual GCSA Charter Schools Conference, March 10-12.
Dr. Wong discussed several topics recently during a Q&A session with the GCSA:
Question: Are good teachers born, or can they be created/cultivated through education and on-going professional development?
Dr. Wong: I have never heard a teacher declare that “I am a born teacher.” Yet, I have heard administrators declare that “Mrs. Coleman is a born teacher.” Then, if you ask Mrs. Coleman what she does that makes her so good as a teacher, she cannot tell you nor can she transfer her skill to someone else. If we cannot share our knowledge, education stops.
The essence of education is to teach someone how to do something. Thus, a knowledgeable and effective administrator can teach a talented person how to be an effective teacher. That’s what I have been doing to thousands of teachers for two decades. The most talented teacher wants to learn how to be a better teacher. That’s what motivates then, continual learning. In turn, these teachers are willing to help others become more effective teachers. Education is a sharing profession, not something you are born into.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes, in your findings, that young teachers make and how can they avoid them?
Dr. Wong: They believe that learning should be fun. So they keep looking for fun activities believing that if the students laugh and enjoy their activities they must be learning. When they are asked what’s the purpose or objective of the lesson, they cannot tell you. The activities are done without any thought to the curriculum or standards required for their grade level.
After a while, what you see are activities cobbled together like a smorgasbord with no coherence and no learning that can be measured. There is no relationship of they are doing to the others teachers in the school. The new teachers then become disenchanted because everyone is operating in their own silo.
The new teachers are not to be blamed; it’s the lack of a school culture that allows them to do this.
Q: What should school administrators look for in a prospective teacher?
Dr. Wong: Look for someone who is a learner, but the administrator must know what the teacher needs to learn to become an effective teacher. If not the prospective, willing learner stops learning. Just as ineffective teachers cobble together activities and think they are teaching, administrators cobble together programs, fads and ideologies thinking that these programs, fads and ideologies will improve student learning. They ignore the fact that it is the teacher who is the most significant factor in student learning.
Ten years ago, an article appeared in the KAPPAN where the author had a list of almost 400 ideas, fads, and programs that had been tried over and over again, with none of them working. The prospective teacher is the future of the school, not some program or fad. The prospective teacher is looking to grow. Have a structured, coherent, and sustained professional development program that teaches a new teacher how to be an effective teacher.
Q: What are some things school administrators can do to improve the job performance of their teaching staff?
Dr. Wong: An administrator needs to know that student learning and achievement does not come from buying programs or structuring a school based on some philosophy or ideology. Student learning comes from having a cadre of effective teachers, and we know the research on what makes for an effective teacher. Thirty years of research repeatedly says that the effective teacher: 1) Can manage a classroom, 2) Can instruct for student learning, and 3) Has positive expectations for student learning and success.
Teach teachers targeted instructional skills. Knowing this fact, the administrator can then have a new teacher induction program that seamlessly becomes a sustained professional development program that is based on the three characteristics of an effective teacher.
Q: How important is professional development for teachers?
Dr. Wong: Professional development is the only way to create effective teachers. Professional development is also the only way to create a culture of consistency in a school. If you do not have effective teachers and you do not have a culture of consistency, then you have a bunch of teachers operating alone with no one to monitor their progress.
The question is not “how important,” the question is “does a professional development program exist?” Not to have a professional development program is like a store that does not give its employees continuous training, an airline that does not continually train its pilots and a team that does not have spring training followed by continuous training.
The ineffective schools are those where new teachers are thrown into the classroom and told to sink or swim and where the administrators does not have the interpersonal skills to gather everyone together to work as a team.
Just as good teachers teach towards goals and objectives, good administrators lead a school with measureable goals and objectives. The key word is “lead.” You lead people; you don’t lead programs.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on ways that veteran teachers can remain motivated?
Dr. Wong: I all but get a standing ovation at meetings when I say, “Please stop spending money on every fad that comes along and take a fraction of that money and spend it on continuous professional development of your teachers.” The ones who applaud the loudest are the veteran teachers. They want training. They know the value of training. Continuous learning is what motivates them. What demotivates them is another “flavor of the month” with the underlying message that it is a program, not the teacher that is the important factor that leads to student learning and achievement.
I have seen so many charter schools that advertise themselves as based on “the whole child,” “the constructivist approach,” or “multiple intelligence.” Or, they tell you they have small classes and the latest technology. Now ask any parent what they want and they will tell you, “We want the best teacher possible for my child!”
Q: If you could, what are three things you would do to improve education in our country?
Dr. Wong: One thing is all we need to do, but we refuse to do it. The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Ineffective schools do not know how to improve the quality of their teachers. Eighty percent of a school’s budget is spent on teacher’s salaries, yet most schools ignore the fact that teachers are the capital resources of a school. Peter Drucker, the famed business guru, coined the term “human capital” and considered people “assets.” Human capital is the wealth and future of a company. People are its major assets.
Peter Drucker says that if you ask any businessperson to name their greatest asset, they will tell you it’s their PEOPLE. An asset is what you invest in to make it grow into greater assets. That’s why businesses spend $53 billion dollars each year training their people—their assets—to make them worth more to a company.
However, ask a school administrator or policymaker to name their greatest asset and they will often tell you its money or programs. Rarely do you hear anyone say, their teachers are their most valuable assets—yet the research says it over and over again: Teacher instructional quality is the most critical factor by which to improve student achievement or close the achievement gap.
Ask the baseball manager, construction foreman, or senior partner in a law firm, what they do with new employees. They will tell you that all employees are trained from the day they arrive, and the training continues until the employee leaves.
Now, ask a school administrator what they do with a new teacher. Some do nothing. Most will tell you they assign a mentor to the new teacher and rarely monitor the result of the relationship.
The only way to close the student achievement gap is to close the teacher instruction gap. Teach the teachers well and they will teach the students well.
Effective schools have a culture where they consistently invest in teacher capital.