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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Two BookTalks Address What Works Best in Teaching

Sonia Nieto: What Keeps Teachers Going

Since half of all new public school teachers will leave the profession within their first five years of teaching, Sonia Nieto wondered about the ones who stay. Nieto, Professor of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, looked at this issue closely and wrote about it in her book What Keeps Teachers Going (In Spite of Everything)?

Nieto has been a teacher at all levels. Her research has focused on multicultural education, educating students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and the need for social justice in teacher education.

"It is imperative to keep good teachers," she told the audience in the Julius Held Auditorium at Barnard College. That, she explained, is what led to her research on why the best teachers stay in the profession at all.

In this study, she looked at eight high school teachers, five of whom were named "Teacher of the Year." All were from different public high schools in Boston, and most were teaching for at least 20 years. One teacher, who was in the profession for only six years, had been the student of one of the longer-term teachers in the study.

The first of her findings about why the teachers stay in the profession was a love for their students and for what they teach. "Teaching involves trust and respect, as well as close relationships between students and teachers," Nieto said. "It is, in fact, based on love."

The teachers in the study said they connect learning to students' lives and forge partnerships with the parents. They also view themselves as lifelong learners.

Another finding is that hope is at the essence of teaching. "It shows up in a number of ways," Nieto explained. "Hope in their students, in public education and faith in their colleagues."

Anger and desperation also keep teachers going. The anger is at injustices that their students had to endure, at policies, at being treated as if they were children, themselves. Good teachers, she said, need to find the right balance between hope and despair.

Teachers in the study thought deeply about teaching and engaged in intellectual work everyday-the kind that takes considerable thought and research, she said.

She commented on the need for teachers to collaborate rather than become isolated. Schools need to see it as a way of developing a community of teachers as learners in the same way that they are developing a community of kids as learners. Teachers can be the ones to initiate these kinds of groups. "Teachers," she said, "need to take the leadership even when they don't think other teachers are interested."

Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood Go Inside the National Writing Project

To find out if networks make a difference in classroom teaching, Ann Lieberman and Diane R. Wood studied the National Writing Project. With 175 school-university sites in 49 states, The Writing Project has the reputation of being a career-altering professional development experience.

Their studies culminated in a book called, Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting Network Learning and Classroom Teaching, which analyzes what makes the Project so successful, and shows how other professional development efforts can learn from it. The two authors discussed their book with moderator Richard Heffner, Host of PBS Channel 13's "The Open Mind," in the Milbank Chapel.

The book describes the principles of the Writing Project, its activities, its social practices, and the complexities involved in building and sustaining such a network. The co-authors, Wood and Lieberman, struggled to figure out what bonded these teachers and made them internalize accountability. They noticed that the way they interacted socially transcended their institutions, geography, grade level and subject areas.

Wood, who was saddled with the task of naming this cultural connection, came up with "social practices" which refers to how the teachers build relationships and interactions to take each other seriously. This builds respect and a collective sense of responsibility toward students.

Bringing teachers together to share the knowledge they have accrued over the years is essential. "In other places they are still doing professional development by bringing people in to tell teachers what to do," said Lieberman. "They think it's easy and efficient, but it's really throwing money down the hole."

They studied the activities of two sites of the Writing Project while interjecting the voices of the participants throughout the book. Lieberman, who is a TC emeritus professor and senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a visiting professor at Stanford University, observed a Writing Project in Los Angeles. Wood, who is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Southern Maine, studied one in rural Oklahoma.

The researchers followed six teachers, who participated in the National Writing Project institutes, to see what they took back to their classrooms. They chose two brand new teachers, two mid-career teachers and two veterans. They were all women, all energetic and all committed to education. When they brought the six teachers together in Los Angeles for a meeting, the teachers, who were from different places, bonded quickly and were swapping ideas by the end of the day.

Lieberman and Wood describe a different way of thinking about professional development in their study- one that involves teachers in their own learning, builds teacher leadership, and sustains teacher commitment to improvement.

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