First of all, I want to say how excited and honored I am to work with all of you on teaching and learning this year. Every year—for 35 years—I've been inspired by my colleagues at St. Andrew's. It is a privilege to work with so many smart, thoughtful, creative, engaged and collaborative scholars and people—when I return to school at the end of each summer, I feel your energy and excitement about the upcoming school year and can't wait to get started again. I'm really looking forward to being able to work more closely with all of you this year.
We all know that St. Andrew's is a great academic school, that extraordinary teaching and learning is happening throughout the school every day. We also know that we can always get better and that we need to continue to strive for excellence and to deepen our commitment to teaching and learning. We do a superb job teaching our students that the only way for them to grow, develop and learn is to be open to feedback, to be thoughtful and reflective and collaborative. We, as teachers, need to approach our work in the same way.
The wonderful thing about teaching is that it is a craft that we can all work on, practice, develop, and refine—we are so privileged that we have jobs where we can continue to grow and develop, that we work in a school that values development and growth and that we work with colleagues who all share this desire to improve. It is, undoubtedly, the very reason we chose teaching as a profession and that we have all chosen to teach at St. Andrew's. In essence, practicing and cultivating the art of teaching gives all our lives meaning, both personally and professionally.
So many of you, in your philosophies of instruction, articulated the desire to continue to develop as teachers, to learn from and collaborate with other teachers, to adjust your teaching to serve your students better. It's clear that we are poised and eager to take our teaching and learning to the next level. You all beautifully wrote about your desire to keep learning yourselves. The following are just a few examples:
—My assumption here is that people become better teachers when they collaborate with their colleagues on a daily basis.
—The collaborative atmosphere at the school and within the department allows me to reflect on my class preparation, teaching, creating assessments, and grading in a way that is not characterized by competitiveness, fear, or judgment. As such, I have felt open to trying new approaches and experimenting with varying techniques to continually develop my skills and enhance the educational experience for the students.
—It's important to me to show students that I too am learning, exploring and taking risks in my thinking and in my work.
—I believe what makes a good educator great, is always striving to learn, assess, and reflect on themselves and their methods.
In the spirit of these (and many other) testimonials, I'd like for all of us to think about St. Andrew's as a learning lab for teachers—in other words, we should think of St. Andrew's as a place where we have the opportunity to learn something new from the many brilliant teachers within these buildings; it is a place where we can harness the experience, the energy, the wisdom and the passion of our colleagues every single day. Of course, we can only do this if we really open up our classrooms and welcome frequent visits from each other, from department chairs, from me, and from Harvey Johnson, Dean of Math and Science.
Last spring and over the summer, Tad and I visited other schools and talked with educators who do this very well. In the spring, we visited North Star Academy in Newark, NJ, one of Doug LeMov's Uncommon Schools, for those of you who have read Teach Like a Champion. And over the summer, we went to Teach for America's summer institute for training teachers in Delaware for a day. During our visits, we witnessed really extraordinary teaching, coaching and mentoring in action and then spoke to teachers and educators about the process. They all talked about the importance of these collaborations happening every day. Teachers videotape their classes every day; they have a mentor observing every day; they reflect on their teaching in daily conversations and in weekly written reflections. We were struck by the positive spirit, the energy, the invigorating atmosphere, and the excitement about teaching and learning that permeated every corner of these schools. All the teachers spoke about not only the necessity of but their addiction to good feedback and coaching. They were hungry for more.
In What Great Teachers Do Differently, Todd Whitaker focuses on 17 things that matter most about teaching; I'd like to keep a few of these simple yet essential (and sometimes easy to forget) things in mind throughout the year:
—Great teachers have high expectations for students, but have even higher expectations for themselves.
—Great teachers focus on students first, with a broad vision that keeps everything in perspective.
—Great teachers create a positive atmosphere in their classrooms and schools. They treat every person with respect. In particular, they understand the power of praise.
Again, in your philosophies of instruction, many of you identified these key elements to your teaching:
—The classroom becomes a community and in that community is respect, kindness, vulnerability and growth.
—Encouraging students to question the world around them and develop tools to investigate phenomena beyond the physics classroom is central to my teaching philosophy. The main goal is to inspire students to challenge their existing knowledge and empower them to create new understanding.
—I feel that learning can only happen when students feel safe, at ease and cared for. Students are more likely to succeed in a place where they feel known and cared about. While my class size is small, it doesn't mean my students feel they are known in the room. I want students to see my classroom not only as a space where they must think, read, write with rigor but also as a community where they are required to connect with each other, praise each other and show genuine care for each other.
We all have the goal of teaching our students knowledge and skills, but even more importantly, we want to inspire our students by creating classrooms full of encouragement, curiosity, rigor, playfulness, passion and exploration. In his book, What the Best College Students Do, Ken Bain distinguishes between strategic and deep learning, arguing that it is through deep learning that students experience wonder and joy and are ultimately happier and more successful. At St. Andrew's, we have, for the most part, eliminated strategic learning and have moved our students to deep—or what we often call authentic—learning. It's clear from our own experiences teaching and talking to our students as well as from the senior exit survey that we are doing a lot right. Our students see their academic careers at St. Andrew's as a powerful, challenging, rewarding and fun journey. They learn to be reflective and self-motivated, resilient and flexible. Through the power of their relationships with their teachers and peers, they learn to be collaborative, nimble and open-minded. Finally, they understand that their scholarship and learning resonates and extends beyond the classroom to a larger community that is a source of inspiration, challenge and support for them.
Over the summer, I know that many of you worked on, thought about, studied and reconsidered your courses and how you are going to approach your teaching this year. Obviously, this is important work to do each year as we develop as teachers. But there are ways to continue to develop throughout the school year as well—and I would love for us all to reflect on our teaching daily. In his book Small Teaching, James Lang focuses on actual practices and small changes that we can all make without redesigning a course, such as how we begin and conclude a class, how we provide feedback and organize content, how we write exams and design assessments. We can make these adjustments through our own reflections and with the help of our colleagues through observation and feedback. For me, the most powerful model of this kind of daily development has been the experience of co-teaching Humanities with Emily for the past six years. We talk about our teaching, what's working, what's not working, about students who are too quiet or who are talking too much; we evaluate the questions we're asking, the arc of our class discussions, and how we can more effectively teach a particular aspect of our course. In essence, we are engaged in professional development every day. Of course, we're not all co-teaching a course, but I think we need to approach every day with the sense that we can develop an aspect of our teaching through conversations, reflections, observations and feedback.
As we continue to strive to give our students this learning experience every day throughout their careers, I'd like us all to commit to the teaching portfolio work that we started last year. This work gives us the opportunity to think more intentionally about our teaching, to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, to collaborate with our department chairs and other members of our departments, and to learn and develop as teachers. In many ways, we need to engage in the same process of learning that we are teaching our students to do: being open to feedback, and engaging in conversations that will challenge and refine our thinking and approach to teaching and learning; we need to reflect, try new things, self-assess and know that we all can learn and improve. Furthermore, this portfolio work is essential as a response to our enduring dilemma and challenge of data driven and value-added conversations. We need to document and measure and honor the complex, enduring, subtle but life affirming and transforming skills of our liberal arts high school. This is our answer to reducing our school to a series of tests. We need to develop our own system of accountability and excellence that mirrors the culture of our school. If we don't, we make ourselves vulnerable to simplified, external standards that don't meet the sophistication of our teaching methodology. The teaching portfolio, therefore, is our opportunity to gather more data and demonstrate and document the quality of our teaching and the depth of our students' learning.
This year, we will engage in the process of examining the nature of our students' first year experience for the Middle States Accreditation project. We have a unique opportunity to explore so many questions about our goals, our assessments, our cultivation of intellectual skills, and the way that we instill confidence, excitement, curiosity and exploration in our students as they begin their academic journeys at St. Andrew's. Both Tad and Tony will be talking more about this project later this week.
As we are doing today, we will use faculty meetings as well as seek other opportunities to watch each other in action. I welcome any other suggestions or ideas about how to continue to bring our teaching alive for one another.
I invite you all to join me as we cultivate an even deeper, more intentional learning community for teaching at St. Andrew's, a culture that recognizes that we have a lot of expertise in our academic buildings and the opportunity to learn, grow and develop every day through conversations, collaborations, practice, observations and feedback. We all belong to this dynamic intellectual community—let's take our own learning to the next level.