Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Without Teachers, the Classroom is Just a Room

January 09, 2013

Years ago, when our foundation was getting started and Bill and I were starting to learn more about high school education, I had a conversation with a young teacher in Houston, Texas that transformed the way I look at the work we’re doing.

He said that when he reflected about what it meant to be a good teacher, he realized that he had to live the values he was trying to instill in the students. (This reminded me of one of my favorite quotations from Gandhi—that you should “be the change you wish to see in the world.”) Then he said that once he reflected on what it meant to live good values, he stopped thinking just about being a better teacher and started thinking about being a better human being.

 We started with the most basic question: What does great teaching look like?

This teacher gave me a new reverence for what the bond between teacher and student is all about. There is a cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The whole of education is greater than the sum of algebra, persuasive writing, and reading comprehension—even though basic arithmetic tells you that the sum of those parts is very large. That was the idea behind this video, which I just showed a group of hundreds of educators  gathered together from 32 districts and states to  learn from each other about designing high quality teacher development and evaluation systems.

As the video says, the focus of our education strategy in recent years has centered on helping teachers do their best work. We’re working on this challenge from many angles and with many partners, including teachers themselves. We started with the most basic question: What does great teaching look like? We hoped that if we could help come up with an answer, we could share what we learned and help all teachers be their best. So we worked with 3000 teachers from across the country who volunteered to be part of a big research project. We now have results from that work, which we called Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). It found that effective teaching can be measured using multiple measures that teachers can trust.

Now, we’re focused on giving teachers the support they need to excel in the classroom. That support should come in many forms, including individualized professional development, cutting-edge educational technology, and state-of-the-art lesson plans. One of the things I hear most often when I talk to teachers is that they’re eager for more chances to work together, to learn from each other.

New teachers want regular access to colleagues with experience who can help them grow into the profession. Experienced teachers, likewise, want to become leaders in their schools by mentoring new teachers. I was recently talking to teachers in Denver, an innovative school district that is trying some new approaches. They told me one of the best changes is a new emphasis to work in groups. They said the spirit of the collaboration reminds them of why they became teachers in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers must have a voice in creating the future of teaching. They have a unique understanding of where their profession needs to go—and what they need to do their best work for students. We have an obligation to benefit from their wisdom. That is why all the work we do at the foundation is in partnership with teachers.

 
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