Reflecting on the 2017 Teacher Powered Schools Conference

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Teacher Powered Schools conference in Los Angeles.  I believe now more than ever that teachers can and should lead.  The outstanding work that the schools run by teachers are doing across the country was on full display.  Each of these schools created spaces where students were at the center of all educational decisions.  Each leveraged the knowledge of the teachers in the classroom to create schools that reflected the values of the communities that they served.

It is no secret that our educational system has been plagued with problems that continue to go
unaddressed.  It is easy to suggest that our school system is broken.  However as Jose’ Navarro, a principal and teacher at Social Justice Humanitas,suggests: “Our schools are not broken, our schools are getting the results that they are designed to get.”  We cannot continue to run schools the way that we have for the past 50+ years and expect that the results will be different.  We need to create a vastly different way of looking at education in this country.  We must recognize and internalize the idea that our educational woes will not be solved with a one-size-fits-all approach

Teacher-powered schools provide a dynamic approach to education that allows schools to function in lock-step with the communities they serve.  These schools operate on the ‘radical’ idea that teachers are professionals who are able to respond to the unique needs of their students— that teachers will be accountable to what they have helped to create.  When I present this idea to someone who does not work in education, they often respond by saying: “That just makes sense.”

Site Visits in LA

Mural from outside of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus.

While in LA, we had the opportunity to see the success of the teacher-powered movement first hand.  We visited two separate sites: Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools and Social Justice Humanitas.  On the RFK Community Schools campus, 6 separate schools were housed— each of these being run by teachers with a different focus and vision for education.  Social Justice Humanitas sits on another large campus where there are 3 pilot schools and 1 charter school.  Although each of the schools that we saw was individually unique in their practice, they were all built upon one unifying concept: social justice.  The fact that each of these schools focused on social justice does not come as a surprise.  When teachers lead, systems that honor the humanity of the students are created.  Over the years, I have spent more than my fair share of time fighting systems and policies that go against and do not reflect the brilliance of each of the learners who show up in my classroom.  Imagine if teachers were able to create systems that are framed with the young people in the classroom in mind.  What beautiful things could we create together?

I am most inspired by the work of the teachers and students at Social Justice Humanitas Academy.  This school exemplifies what it is to have a vision and mission for a school and live by it.  Hearing the
student panel speak, it was obvious that what was happening at the school was truly living their vision of having students reach self-actualization by creating a school that is worthy of their own children.  Shouldn’t we all be striving to create schools that are worthy of our own children?  In all of the schools on display, it was clear that teachers were committed to the vision the vision and mission that they had stake in created.

Final Thoughts

The systems that teachers create are ones that directly reflect the needs of the learners that they teach.  In traditional school systems, teachers often feel hamstrung by the systems that are created and powerless to change the policies that do not serve their students.  This often leads to teacher burn-out and a high rate of teacher disatisfaction.  Empowering teachers to lead reverses this trend.  I am heartened by the fact that the Teacher-Powered Schools movement is gaining traction across the United States.  We need more schools that are run with the students and communities they serve in mind.  It is my hope that we can build on this momentum and continue to introduce this concept into more and more cities across the country, including my home city of Pittsburgh.  In recent decades, we have allowed bureaucrats who have little to no understanding of the educational system to create systematic policies that often adversely affect the quality of education in our schools.  It is past time that teachers reclaim the schools so that we can create schools that our worthy of our children— schools that live up to their values in words and actions.  When teachers lead, students win!

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