Global Exchange

Monday, February 23, 2015 at 12:00am
By: Kathryn Hunt

Emanuel F. Harper IV crosses international borders every day. “In class, I expose my students to French culture and to the idea that people in other parts of the world live and do things differently than we do,” says Harper, who teaches French and is the academic accountability and data coordinator at Herron High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has long been curious about educational practices in other countries and wondered what practices already in place elsewhere might help him and other American teachers become better at what they do.

In November, Harper got to find out. He was one of 80 educators from Australia, Canada, Finland, Holland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States to attend the Summit on Feedback and Improving Teacher Practice in Washington D.C. Sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust, the summit was designed to share practices and tools for feedback, reflection, and collaboration and to talk about ways to create systems in which opportunities for improvement become the norm.

Harper learned that teachers in Finland, for instance, keep journals in which they routinely reflect on their teaching practice. Back home, he suggested that teachers at Herron also use journals as a tool for reflection.

“Giving teachers the space to strategically reflect is an important goal for our school,” he says. “To that end, each member of our faculty now has a journal that was provided by the school.” Teachers in department groups at Herron recently used their journals to reflect on important elements of effective classroom culture.

The work of the summit participants began before they ever arrived in Washington. Each educator was asked to post a description of a school-wide strategy or a specific tool for teacher feedback and collaboration on the CTQ Collaboratory, an interactive website for educators. During the summit, the briefs were shared and discussed, revised, and improved upon in a structured, iterative process that drew on the collective wisdom of participants. The goal was to conclude with tools and strategies in hand that, with additional refinement and online collaboration, could be piloted by participants in their classrooms, and shared with other educators.

Julie Hiltz, an elementary school teacher and media specialist from Florida, says participants “were constantly thinking about how things are currently done and asking ourselves, could there be a better way?” Hiltz talked to teachers from countries where teachers have more time than their American counterparts to learn and collaborate. Teachers in Singapore are in the classroom about 20 hours a week; the rest of their time is spent working with colleagues on lessons, visiting classrooms, and meeting in learning circles. “The impact of that would be exponential,” she says. “But how do we get to that?”

Harper wants to get there too, but cautions that tools and strategies—or even more time—don’t necessarily add up to great teaching for all students. In schools “with a high minority student body and many English language learners,” Harper says, students need to see more teachers that “look like them” or who have received cultural training that helps them better understand and teach their students.

In conversations with colleagues from Hong Kong, Finland, and Singapore, he learned about their national teacher certification programs and now thinks national certification and training standards for all teachers in the U.S. might help.

“We can have dialogues like this with teachers from around the world,” he says. “We have one planet, one shot at this, and we have to do it right.”