A Teacher Asks “What If…?”

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hechinger Report, under the headline “Why one teacher got behind education equity after meeting with Obama, Duncan.” 

On July 7, I had the privilege of meeting with and discussing education policy with President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and three of the most amazing teachers within our profession: LeShawna Coleman, Justin Minkel and Leslie Ross. One of the questions that the president asked of us was, “What brought you to the teaching profession?” I came to teaching by asking one question early on. It is a question I still continue to ask. That question is, “What if?”

My undergraduate experiences at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania were phenomenal. I was the first one in my family to attend college and thus incredibly committed to success. My academic growth was exponential. I was also terribly under-prepared. What took my peers just a few hours often took me a few days. In the solitude of the library stacks I often asked myself, “What if?” What if I had been exposed to some of the ideas presented to me in college during my K-12 experience? What if I had been taught to write the way I was expected to do now? What if my teachers had engaged my family, community and me in the same way that my professors did at the undergraduate and graduate levels? What if?

In my meetings with President Obama and Secretary Duncan, it was clear to me that they too have asked themselves similar questions as they relate to educational equity: “What if all children had access to highly trained and developed teachers who consistently deliver great instruction?” The president articulated this issue best, “So we have a problem in which the kids who need the most skilled teachers are the least likely to get them. And the most talented and skilled teachers oftentimes are teaching the kids who are already the best prepared and have the most resources outside of the school in order to succeed.”

To help solve this problem, President Obama and Secretary Duncan on July 7 introduced a new educational equity initiative that seeks to ensure that “all children have access to a high quality education regardless of their race, zip code or family income.” In order to reach this goal, Secretary Duncan has pledged to work together with educational leaders to “invigorate the focus to better recruit, support, and retain effective teachers and principals for all students, especially the kids who need them most.”

As a teacher who has worked in high needs schools my entire career, I agree with Secretary Duncan. Many of these schools are disproportionately staffed by teachers who are just beginning to learn the “how” and “what” of great instruction. I know this because I was one of them. I have been able to pursue, achieve, and sustain excellence because of three key factors: Relationships, collaboration, and continuous professional development.

The cultivation of relationships with my students, their parents, my administrators, and the community has been key to my success as a teacher. These relationships are critical cogs in the wheels of family engagement and student performance. I have had the privilege of teaching sibling groups of multiple families and have cultivated a strong bond with them. Oftentimes, these relationships have meant the difference between a child having a meal or disrupting my classroom because they haven’t eaten since lunchtime the day before. If we want to ensure “excellence for all,” we have to look at what happens if we fill high-needs schools with individuals who understand great instruction but fail to value and appreciate the context of the community they serve. And we have to ask: “How do we encourage both communities and individuals to invest in and trust one another?”

Another factor that has enabled me to find success within the classroom has been access to high-quality professional development opportunities. Some of these opportunities have come in the form of conferences like the annual International Reading Association. Others have taken the form of fellowships like that of Teach Plus. The challenges we face at high-needs schools extend far beyond the four walls of our classrooms. Our students are dealing with trauma and socioeconomic issues that often inhibit their ability to be fully engaged in the learning process. To this end, our professional development has to address these issues and equip teachers to handle them.

Collaboration was and remains most important to my teaching career. Whether it is with new or veteran teachers, my ability to collaborate with other teachers within my building has had a tremendous impact on my teaching. After 10 years of teaching, I still take the weekend to meet with my colleagues to discuss instruction. I continue to find time to visit as many classrooms as possible in an effort to borrow new and innovative strategies and routines. I have found that the more I collaborate, the better my efficacy and the greater the growth in my students.

My teaching career began in a library. While pondering the possibilities of an educational experience that could have better prepared me for the rigors of college, I decided to be an agent of change. I have remained passionate about education because I love my community, my students and my colleagues. I am constantly seeking to become a better teacher and I make it a habit to learn something new every day. I have remained in the classroom because I am constantly pushing the boundaries of limitations by asking, “What if?” What if we reimagined how we use time and talent so that collaboration within and across schools became a priority? What if we worked with teachers to provide them with the skills and understandings necessary to succeed in high-needs schools? What if we all constantly asked, “what if?”

Dwight Davis is a fifth-grade teacher at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, D.C. He serves as a teacher lead at Wheatley Education Campus and was part of a team of teachers who created unit plans for DCPS’ Common Core Reading Corps.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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