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Strategies for Change

sarahfj's picture

Sarah Friesen-Johnson

May 1, 2015

Educ 299, P. Cohen

Strategies for Change

The way to create change in education is to start at the classroom level. That is where the students are being impacted the most. The individuals that are most influential on students, therefore, are their teachers. If education is to change, there needs to be a trend toward putting good teachers in every American classroom. There are, however, challenges to making this a reality. First, though there are some ideas of what makes a good teacher, there is no single model. There are some components that are known to combine to create a good teacher, but it is not that simple. Another challenge is that there is not enough support for the teaching profession. It is not valued as highly in our society as it should be and because of that there are few who pursue it as a profession. Those who do pursue teaching often are undereducated and unprepared for the classroom. Programs like Teach For America exacerbate this problem. In order to bring more good teachers into the field of education, it is necessary to improve society’s view of teaching as a profession, gain an understanding of what makes a good teacher and create teacher education programs that are effective in preparing teachers for the classroom.

A good teacher can take many forms and there is no one way to be a good teacher. Perhaps that is why there are so many problems with creating good teachers. They cannot be mass produced and teaching is often more of an art than a science. Despite the uniqueness of every teacher, there is some evidence that shows that good teachers have two things in common. First, they are compassionate toward their students and second, they maintain a sense of the individuality of each of their students. It is the way they view their students, therefore, that makes a teacher good. As Gloria Ladson-Billings says, “Of course teachers think about their students. But how they think about their students is a central concern of successful teaching.” (2008).

Teachers vary and their interactions with students vary. It is important, therefore, for a teacher to maintain the perspective that all students are different. A good teacher caters to a student’s individuality. He or she makes sure to gain an in depth understanding of the student despite context or background as well as within the student’s context and background. This way, the student’s needs may be met on an individual level. An example of a good teacher that recognizes the individuality of students comes from Lisa Stolin-Smith’s Beyond Print: Roaming in the Known. In it she explains,

“I made conscious choices about each lesson that would honor his culture within purposeful literacy experiences, I also worked to balance power/knowledge relationships by building the curriculum around Tekwan’s cultural and personal resources.” (2005).


It is clear from this account that working with a student on an individual level heavily involves taking the student’s background and culture into consideration. It is also important, though, that the current context is considered and how the present influences are impacting the student.

In order to gain an understanding of a student’s individuality at this level, a teacher must care for the student. It has come up time and time again that a good teacher is a caring teacher. L. Janelle Dance defines a caring teacher and says, “...a relationship with her or him makes ‘possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in [absence of a caring relationship].’” (2002). Dance gives the example of Ms. Bronzic as a model of a caring teacher. She describes the many ways in which Mrs. Bronzic cares about her students and lets her students know they are cared for. She says of Ms. Bronzic, “...teachers, like Ms. Bronzic, who convince students that they genuinely care, cause these students to feel ‘seen’ in a way they have never felt seen before, fully attended to, wrapped up in an empathetic gaze.” I have seen this in my placement at Underhill Elementary as well. The teacher at my site, Mrs. P attends to her sixth grade students with such an incredible about of care that they feel comfortable with her in the classroom and are willing to give her everything they have to succeed. (Field Notes, 2015).

Of course, being a good teacher is slightly more complicated than those simple traits. There are subtleties involved such as the distinction between sympathy for students and empathy that Ladson-Billings draws. She calls it “informed empathy” that “requires the teacher to feel with the students rather than feel for them. Similarly, good teachers need to be made aware of the power dynamic their classroom holds especially as it relates to a larger societal power dynamic. As Sonia Nieto says, “[there is a] perception that cultures other than the dominant one lack importance.” (2000). Recognizing a student’s role in that system and cultural viewpoint is important when considering the implication the classroom may have of him or her. The subtlety of the teaching profession is why more research needs to be done to discover what other components make a good classroom teacher. It is also important to perform this research because the teaching profession is constantly changing, always need of updating as it’s students change with the outside culture.

These subtleties and more are perhaps why it is so difficult to educate teachers. A large issue in our school system is teachers coming into classrooms uneducated and unprepared on how to be a good teacher. This may reflect the broader societal view that teaching is easy and does not require someone with a thorough or a good education. Programs like TFA make such assumptions. They recruit individuals from selective institutions and assume that their intelligence (or social capital) is enough to carry them through the two year commitment. Therefore, there is limited instruction in education and newly minted teachers enter the classroom with a woeful lack of understanding of the situation. As Catherine Crawford Garrett says, “Several former corps members have published accounts of their first year of teaching and lament their lack of preparedness and its impact on the students.” (2013). Not only do such programs bring unprepared teachers into schools, they create high rates of teacher turnover that further impact the students negatively. TFA is not alone in its failings. It is only an example of a larger problem that exists in our schools system. The problem being that teachers are not being properly educated and that they are not supported to continue in teaching.

I propose, therefore, that the first step in improving the educational system of the United States is to provide all teachers with quality education before bringing them into the teaching profession. To do this, programs that are ineffective need to be eliminated or improved. There is, however, a major roadblock to this kind of reform. Due to the fact that teacher education is such a pressing issue, there are many viewpoints on it and many of those viewpoints oppose one another. Unfortunately, that opposition only creates conflict and slows the process of creating effective teaching programs.

If compromises aren’t made, progress won’t occur. The dialogue that occurred between Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch after Ravitch published a scathing review of TFA is a perfect example of this. (The New York Review of Books, 2012). In it, both women were belligerent and stubborn. They believed with absolute certainty that their way was the only way to go about education. But, despite Ravitch’s harsh words, TFA will continue to exist and her article only made Kopp defensive about the flaws of the program. Perhaps, if Ravitch had approached TFA from a desire based perspective and come to Kopp as an ally rather than as an enemy, there might have been a very different dialogue that could have been more productive. The simple truth is that, given the diversity of needs in the educational system, there is no one right way and there is no one wrong way. Approaching education collaboratively may be the most effective way to promote change. In order to exist in a diverse system, all voices must be heard and must be respected. Education, however, is failing to do that and its lack of progress stance as evidence.

Not only do teachers need to have a good education in order to enter the classroom, they need to be consistently supported once they are in the classroom. Due to the fact that education is a constantly changing system, the tools a teacher learned twenty years ago may have little to no bearing on the present needs of the students. Therefore, support needs to be given to all teachers to continue to advance and improve their pedagogies to serve each and every student. The teacher in my placement has been teaching for 32 years. She is a good teacher, but some of her strategies are antiquated. Though no one has come into the classroom to coach her or give her feedback on her teaching, she senses that she is not being effective. She has expressed to me that she wished the school district payed for more classes and would send in a couch to her because, even after 32 years, she wants to improve. (Field Notes, 2015).

Teaching is not easy, despite conceptions that it is an easy profession. Teachers cannot enter the classroom unprepared and expect there to be no repercussions. The lives of students are delicate. There have to be good teachers in every classroom because every student deserves to have a good teacher in his or her classroom. Though more research needs to be attained on what exactly a good teacher is, there is enough information to create programs that produce effective teachers and to support teachers already in the system. By creating and sustaining good teachers in US schools, not only will society’s view of the value of the teaching profession change, the lives of students will change. It is simply the most important thing in education that good teachers are being produced and maintained and the roadblocks to this goal (such as lack of collaboration) must be examined and dissolved in order for our education system to change.




Ayers, W., Ladson-Billings, G., Michie, G. & Noguera, P. A. (2008). City Kids, City Schools. New

Press. New York, NY.


Dance, L. J. (2002). Tough Fronts: The Impact of Street Culture on Schooling. RoutledgeFalmer. New

York, NY.


Dozier, C., Johnston, P. & Rodgers, R. (2005). Critical Literacy/Critical Teaching: Tools for Preparing

Responsive Teachers. Teachers College Press. New York, NY.


Friesen-Johnson, S. (2015). Field Notes. Field Work Seminar. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr,



Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education. Allyn &

Bacon Inc. Boston, MA.Ravitch, D. (2012). How and How Not to Improve the Schools. The New York Review of Books.  Retrived from:


jccohen's picture


You make a strong case for the complexity and subtlety of the teaching profession, e.g. the distinction between sympathy and empathy for teachers.  The Dance passage about feeling deeply "seen" is interesting in this regard, since some read this as an overly intense, even problematic connection on the teacher's part...  Also interesting is your comment about the two key, agreed upon qualities of a good teacher - both of these are relational, and neither is about teachers' knowledge about or connection to their subject matter.  So in addition to all the complexities that you name here, I'd add this as an additional important area!

Your focus on the many tensions in the field and your use of the Ravitch-Kopp exchange as an example of a counterproductive approach to these tensions seems to me to lead to the "map for change" that I think you're offering here.  I'm left with the question of how we might move into the more dialogic, collaborative spaces that you point up, so that we can draw on collective resources and support strong teachers in all of our classrooms...  In particular, how do we move toward this vision in urban classrooms?