August 27, 2015
(Photo: Center for Inspired Teaching)
Written by Aleta Margolis, Inspired Teaching’s Founder and Executive Director, this piece first appeared in Inspired Teaching’s August 2015 newsletter.
In summer 1995, I gathered a group of educators, business leaders, and friends—the future board members of Center for Inspired Teaching—around my kitchen table and presented them with a radical proposition: partner with teachers to change the way they do their jobs. Challenge them to stop ‘delivering information’ to students and start teaching students how to think independently. Challenge teachers to build students’ innate love of learning, to fuel their creativity instead of diminishing it, to make school good for kids.
In designing the first Inspired Teaching Institute with my dear friend and colleague Oran Sandel at the Living Stage Theater, a key goal was to get teachers to embrace their role as changemakers. This is no small ask. When a teacher sees her role as delivering a curriculum, the path to success is clear and manageable. When a teacher instead sees her role as changing the lives of the students in her classroom – and demanding change in the broader educational system to positively impact the lives of all students – success is elusive, and the path is littered with obstacles that go far beyond any text.
In that first Institute, we asked teachers to “Take a Stand:” to position their bodies along a continuum representing their beliefs. “Walk to the right of the stage if you strongly believe that the lives of your students are fine as they are.” “Walk to the right if you strongly believe that the dropout rate is fine as it is.” “Walk to the right if you strongly believe that it is your duty to reinforce the status quo.” Overwhelmed as they were with the implications, teachers walked to the left. They saw the need for change, and they saw their opportunity and responsibility to make it happen.
When Inspired Teaching embarked on our first whole-school partnership after ten years of teaching teachers individually, we had the daunting task of changing the norm in the lowest performing school in the District of Columbia. Detachment and defeat pervaded the attitudes of teachers, administrators, and students. At a kick-off two-night retreat with the teachers, we asked them to brainstorm a list of all the “troublemaker” kids. They named at least a third of the students in the school.
We paired every student with an adult who was not his teacher and assigned the adult one simple task. Every morning, the adult would find the student, say hello, and ask, “How are you today?” At that retreat, we also presented a major end-of-year project for the teachers and students to work towards: a literary magazine to which every student would contribute a piece of writing. These tasks may seem simple, but we were in fact doing something radical: we were encouraging teachers to change the way they see their students, to let go of low expectations and instead recognize their students’ innate potential for excellence.
As the year went on, students began to feel connected to adults who cared enough to pay attention to them outside of the classroom. Teachers started each day with a positive act and created opportunities to interact joyfully with kids without worrying about discipline or testing. Students were told that they could and would rise to a literacy level that would allow them to publish their work in a magazine – and then they got to experience reading their work to an audience, and take ownership of their learning.
With these deceptively simple acts, we infused the school with Inspired Teaching’s 5 Core Elements: Mutual Respect; Student as Expert; Purpose, Persistence, and Action; Joy; and Wide-Ranging Evidence of Student Learning. Two years later, Tyler Elementary was named one of DC’s rising stars, showing significant increases in test scores and boasting the greatest increase in student attendance of any school in the city. The norm had changed. The lowest-performing school in the District became one of the best.
As we have grown from focusing on teachers to schools to districts, Inspired Teaching’s philosophy of teaching and learning has remained the same. We challenge our teachers to be changemakers, and they rise to the call. Inspired Teachers have advocated at the Department of Education and testified before Congress. They have led DC Public Schools in the rollout of key initiatives. They have written curriculum for use by all their peers. They have incorporated the 5 Core Elements into their classrooms and schools and built the 4 I’s –Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity – in tens of thousands of students.
We are proud of our teachers and we are excited to celebrate our successes with them. In marking our 20th Anniversary at Center for Inspired Teaching, we look forward to many more years of changemaking and instigating thought.
For more information about Inspired Teaching’s programs and partnerships – past and present – explore an interactive timeline highlighting Inspired Teaching over 20 years.