I spend a lot of time on the road. Several weeks out of every month, I travel around the country, talking to educators about literacy instruction: what’s working in their schools and where they need more support. One important thing that I’ve learned is that any balanced literacy model works best when teachers are empowered: to meet the unique needs of their students; to be able to support these students’ mastery of the standards; to effectively engage families in their children’s learning; and to continue to grow as professionals.
True empowerment goes beyond a teacher’s instructional time with students. It means that there are clearly stated learning goals, and strategies for achieving them, which are understood at every level from the administration to students and families. In order to achieve these goals, teachers are equipped with materials supported by research, which they can use confidently to meet the learning needs of all students in their classrooms. And finally, it means that teachers are also always learning, increasing their knowledge and expertise.
With that in mind, below are three ways we can empower teachers.
Create a Shared Understanding of Learning Goals
Teachers are empowered when there is a shared understanding of learning goals that will ultimately help students transfer their skills to the real world. These learning goals are tied to standards that teachers have the tools to break down into smaller, manageable skills for students to master. So when an administration knows what students must achieve, and sets clear expectations, teachers can thread this understanding beyond the classroom to caregivers and families.
When this happens, teachers know exactly how to effectively deliver targeted instruction, students understand what is expected of them, parents know how to support learning at home, and administrators know that when students achieve, they are meeting standards. As the critical link between administrators, students and families, teachers become empowered decision makers.
Support Connections Between Learning and the Real World
Teachers are empowered when they have the tools they need to help students make connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they experience in the real world. The ultimate goal is always for our students to become engaged citizens and lifelong learners, and when tied to literacy, this can only happen when we give students text that allows them to think and feel about what they read. Authentic text comes from language that students will encounter in the real world; it opens the door to rich language and robust vocabulary. This supports reading achievement, but also helps kids become joyful, lifelong readers. By bringing rich stories into the lives of all children, we provide them with an equitable opportunity to read what they may not receive at home or otherwise. And letting students read books of their choice increases engagement and motivation. We want to show children they deserve to read great books!
Trust in Expertise
Teachers are empowered when their work is grounded in research, and supported by the thought leadership of experts in education. Like all professionals, when educators’ work is informed by the most current research in the field, they are equipped with a deep understanding of best practices. It is with that knowledge that they are best able to support students’ success.
Recently, I had the chance to hear Dr. Donyall Dickey speak about his incredible work around unpacking standards-based instructional materials in a way that creates a shared understanding of what the standards actually mean and why each standard is important to student learning. Donyall pointed out that when we provide a framework for a performance-based approach to instruction, it allows students to take learning to the next level: they go beyond remembering and understanding to being able analyze information, apply knowledge and create on their own. In other words, we want children to be able to not only read and understand a poem, but to think critically about poetry and write poems of their own.
Of course, as leaders of learning communities, teachers also need the opportunity to learn and grow as professionals, and these opportunities must be targeted to their needs. Embedded professional development allows educators to become the most confident drivers of literacy instruction. I know this is critical, because giving teachers everything they need to succeed is the only way to ensure they can do the same for their students.
Empowered teachers are equipped to meet the diverse needs of their students. They have the resources and expertise they need to be the conduits of shared learning goals at every level from administrators to families. They deliver instruction that allows students to make connections between their learning and the real world, and are themselves always learning. In the classroom of an empowered teachers, students are joyful readers and lifelong learners.
Michael Haggen is the Chief Academic Officer for Scholastic Education.