The beautiful part about the educational system in Austin is that its goal is to provide an opportunity for every student to reach excellence. Educators want to teach students the necessary skills to be the future leaders of our community, our nation, and within our global society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “intelligence plus character – that is the goal of [a] true education” and teachers in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) know that students need creative problem solving skills, adaptable emotional intelligences, and the abilities to effectively communicate math, science, and civic information. Teachers know that students need time to practice designing different solutions for mathematical and scientific problems; time to practice making mistakes and then persevering past them; and time to practice working within learning groups in a compassionate way. Texas law requires a minimum of 180 days in the school year and each one of these days are filled with an abundant amount of teaching moments.
Teachers want to provide students with engaging educational experiences. After all, learning is fun! Planning lessons where students can explore, elaborate, and explain, requires using best practices in creative ways. In addition, these lessons require teachers to reflect on their practices at the end of the day in order to improve the next one (there are only a minimum of 180 school days). Teaching is an art and daily reflection is a fundamental part of the pedagogy within the practice. The process of reflection is a continuous loop of improvement because it provides a system for teachers to assess themselves daily, gather valuable data and then make appropriate changes the next day. Teachers need to constantly ask themselves if students understand the introduction of the lesson, if re-teaching is needed, and if all students are engaged. Because every student is different, teachers need to explain and present information in multiple ways and multiple times. More importantly, teachers need to take a critical look at how the lesson’s “story” is being told to ensure that students are engaged. Good stories are remembered.
Everybody learns by making mistakes: including teachers. But, the process of reflection is important because it allows teachers to learn and improve. In fact, reflection is so valuable to the pedagogy of teaching that school districts model the practice by giving work quality surveys once a year and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) invests money to promote teacher professional development for learning and reflection. The TEA 2012 budget projected up to $282,758,367 for “Improving Educator Quality/Leadership” (which is a decrease from their 2011 budget at $428,923,493). AISD’s annual “Staff Climate Survey” allows teachers to honestly express their opinions of what the district is doing well and poorly. The survey has nine categories – including, but not limited to, “Teacher Leadership, School Leadership, Community Support, and Student Achievement Press.” In the 2011 survey teachers expressed serious concerns about contributing to the decisions on how their school’s budget is spent and whether “parents/guardians are influencial decision makers.” What valuable data does this give AISD in their reflection process?
This data can be evidence that teachers want more control of their school’s money and that there is a concern with the ability of parents making decisions. Teachers want to use their school’s money to teach problem solving and communication skills through enrichment activities like after school classes and school trips. After school classes are great ways to elaborate lessons for students and field trips provide students with opportunities to change their paradigms. As students engage with a variety of people and ideas, they make new connections and ask new questions. For example, teachers could use money for computer game designing programs or out of state trips to visit Washington, D.C. Another way teachers could use their campus’ money is for community engagement efforts. Specifically, for activities that give parents the opportunity to have hands on, educational experiences with their children. While empowering the parents, these activities give them the ability to collaborate with their teachers in their children’s learning. For example, money could be spent for consecutive evening science camps where parents and students design solutions to real life community problems. Although, AISD is making efforts to teach parents English by partnering with the Maestro en Casa program, could the district use some of TEA’s money for teacher’s professional development, to foster a collaborative, community-wide learning?
More importantly, the 2011 survey showed that teachers are concerned that parents are not being heard as “influencial decision makers.” Parents are working hard - some of them have two or more jobs and English is their second language. To accommodate their schedules, teachers are available before and after school or they make themselves available by phone, after work hours. Teachers often call parents on the weekend with important updates or to answer questions. Although AISD started their radio program Educa-Austin last spring to connect with parents, the district often begin dialogues with parents by asking them to complete online surveys. Or the district will send a “robo-call” to let parents know about important meetings. The last two “robo-call” messages teachers received were entirely in English and unfortunately, some families do not have access to computers. If 63% of the students in AISD are economically disadvantaged while 29% are English Language Learners these forms of communication are not going to work. Can AISD gather adequate data, for reflection purposes, or can AISD gather information, in order to make decisions, if it doesn’t reach a portion of their parents? In other words, can AISD reach its goal of providing all students with an opportunity to achieve if it is not communicating with all parents?
Communication from the district should reflect a commitment parent-teacher-district collaboration. AISD needs to present parents with comprehensive and creative ways to communicate with the district in order to properly practice the pedagogy of reflection. Education is a system that requires a team effort and it is amazing that agencies, districts, non-profit organizations, teachers, and parents are all focused on the goal of improving our society by preparing students to lead. While doing this, the team is also modeling those skills students need: strategic thinking while bravely doing the right thing. Although reflections are challenging because the information gathered sometimes requires admitting that mistakes were made; they are also true educational moments because they are opportunities to learn something, to do something different. As AISD and TEA continue to set goals and assess themselves, will they take a leap to improve their reflection practices? What will our team of leaders look like in the future after we model higher standards for problem solving and communication procedures?