14/06/2012 1 komentārs
Speech at TEDx Riga, June 14, 2012
At Mission Possible, we recruit, select and train talented university graduates and place them in public schools around the country where they work for at least two years as full-time teachers with our support. Our vision is for each child in Latvia to obtain excellent education enabling them to discover and develop their full potential. Having been actively involved in education for almost 20 years, both in formal and informal setting, as an academic and adult trainer, this is my DREAM job – to start at the beginning in forming the teachers and leaders of tomorrow.
Let me tell you some stories of Mission Possible teachers.
Rasma is a student in my 10th grade English class. She is interested in arts, music, fashion design, but not English, because she has never really studied the subject thoroughly. I wanted for her to learn and to participate in English lessons. I tried to engage her, but there were often lessons when Rasma disn’t say a word. When she did answer, her responses were so quiet that no one even tried to ask her another question. But I didn’t give up. I had to have a lot of patience, but slowly, step-by-step – short responses, three-word sentences, a nod. I accepted any kind of response except for silence or „I don’t know“. Rasma was shocked. She tried to avoid me. Three months passed. Then one day we had a class discussion about school and why it was necessary. The discussion was almost over when Rasma raised her hand – she wanted to speak. That was a superb moment for both of us. Rasma now draws smiley faces on all her English tests, regardless of the outcome. She attends classes regularly and does her homework.
In my first teaching year, I became a class teacher to 23 fifth graders. I had inherited a tough situation. Two-thirds of students in that class were perfoming poorly. They had low self-esteem. Moreover, the class wasn’t friendly. This had to change. I decided to involve their parents. We set up regular „study evenings“ devoting significant time to building student skills in math and English in an engaging way. We used a lot of games and conversations in a safe environment to improve the group spirit. I encouraged each parent to identify their child‘s strengths and improvement areas, and, jointly with students, we set academic goals for further studies. We evaluated student outcomes at the end of each month. Many students in class have significantly improved their motivation and grades.
Many teachers, not just Mission Possible participants, have such stories to tell. Stories of challenge and complexity. Yet, we need many MORE of them. At least 200 000 such stories every year – for each child going to school in Latvia today.
We have kids in school with the great ambition to become a neuroscientist, a bank president or a diplomat. But we also have kids who have given up, who have lost faith in their ability to accomplish anything, kids who are happy to get by with a mediocre perfomance. Kids who have learned that at school every deadline can be negotiable, that to get a satisfactory grade it is sufficient to just hand in some work regardless of its quality. We have thousands of kids in school waiting, day after day, month after month, year after year, for the school to be over so that they can START living, so that they can start learning.
We have adults who believe every piece of information they hear regardless of the source. We have adults who believe that they cannot learn math or science because it is too hard for them. We have construction workers and carpenters who cannot perform simple tasks without a supervisor managing their every action. We have lawers, doctors, teachers, politicians who haven’t learned to exercise their professional freedom. We have school graduates who haven’t learned to TAKE CHARGE of their lives.
Nurtuting Professional Freedom
Change is vey SLOW and hard to come by in schools – traditionally a very conservative system. Even if various reforms we are talking about today are implemented swiftly – it would take ten years for them to have an effect on kids. By that time, students entering first grade this year will have already graduated. We need a radical shift in the MINDSET of adults who affect children’s lives on a daily basis – teachers, parents, policy makers, business people, neighbours, bus conductors. It is clear now that legislative and administrative decisions have not done the job. Teachers in this country have been free to design their own curricula, to select textbooks and to craft their own teaching methods for the past fifteen years. Yet, many of them even don’t know that. Many more find comfort in following recommended procedures as a way to avoid responsibility. It’s a question, first and foremost, of inner professional FREEDOM.
That is why we place Mission Possible teachers in schools – to bring a fresh perspective, to challenge long-held assumptions, to reinforce the conviction that ALL children can learn. Schools exist NOT because we need a place to PARK every bit of information humanity has accumulated over centuries. NOT because teachers must have jobs. NOT because we cannot find another way to use an old building. Schools ould be about enabling children to find their passion and developing a wide range of skills for becoming happy and productive world citizens.
Before there can be CHILDREN’s success stories, there must be TEACHER stories of personal growth and transformation. At Mission Possible, we are in the business of helping such stories become a reality. We place bright young people early in their professional careers in schools to have an immediate lasting positive impact on students and support them through an incredible journey of personal transformation to become future leaders affecting system-wide change.
Story of a Mission Possible Teacher
Let me tell you a story about Igors, one of our Mission Possible teachers.
Igors came to Mission Possible as a graduate of the Stockholm School of Economics –Riga, the most competitive higher education institution in Latvia. Having just completed his high profile tenure as Head of the Latvian Student Association, he applied to the programme with the ambition to one day become Minister of Education. With the help of Mission Possible, Igors was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of pupils and the school system.
He taught math to 7th and 8th graders and economics to high school students at a Secondary School with about 450 students, a half-an-hours drive from Riga. Although the school was close to Riga in a rather affluent local authority, both teachers and students had low aspirations of what they can accomplish or who they can become.
Igors did not have an easy time being a teacher. In January, after his first teaching semester he told us that we had made a mistake selecting him for the programme. He felt that despite all the effort he was putting into preparing for the lessons he was not a good teacher. He spent a lot of energy in the classroom in power struggles with students. Igors had low expectations for his students and he openly projected his doubts in their abilities in the classroom. When we reminded him of his goal to one day become Minister of Education, he told us that he didn’t need this first hand experience in the classroom to be one. Everything he needed to know he could have found out through a survey or with the help of a bit of research.
Towards the end of the first school year, a significant number of his students were failing his math class. He shifted into crisis leadership mode, came up with a highly structured, top-down plan, used drakonian methods and, through investing countless hours in individual tutoring, had majority of his students successfully complete the school year. The short-term OUTCOME – satisfactory grades, was accomplished, but the JOURNEY left a lot to be desired.
We continued to affirm our faith in his ability to become a great teacher and leader. He received specific feedback from his mentors and, most importantly – from his students about the effects of his beliefs and actions on their learning.
The turning point came towards the end of his third semester in school. Igors went on a week-long study trip to the United Kingdom where he got inspired from visiting Teach First schools. Teach First is a Mission Possible sister organization in the UK. These were schools in challenging circumstances serving kids from low-income neighbourhoods, heavily populated by recent immigrants. He saw there what a body of motivated teachers and principals can do to put kids on a transformational life path. And came back with a transformed sense of agency that HE can be the change.
His fourth semester teaching math was a great success. Igors convinced himself that his goal was for the students to take responsibility for their learning. He decided that he should spend no more than 4 to 7 minutes instructing students in front of the classroom. He changed the layout of the room to be able to communicate with students more easily. For every lesson, Igors created a visual flowchart to clearly articulate learning outcomes and tasks to students. It included all the exercises they had to complete during the lesson. Now students could work at individual pace, get extra support and guidance when needed and monitor their own progress. Now it was about THEM.
Upon his graduation from Mission Possible, Igors admitted: “The most valuable lesson I learned is that each child can and is willing to learn. If we think they cannot or do not want to learn it means that the teacher hasn’t found the right key and he must continue his search. It’s a philosophy of the strongest, for its hard to grapple with moments when your evening and late night efforts have failed to address yet another challenge. In such moments, it is easy to blame everybody – parents, society, lack of consistency by school leadership, but such behavior is not PRODUCTIVE, because the key for that child HAS NOT been found. Mission Possible prepares me for the fact that it is the responsibility of the locksmith rather than the lock. “
Igors is our first ambassador to become a school principal after a two-year tenure as a school teacher, with a huge responsibility of increasing life chances of 260 kids from kindergarten through 9th grade in an elementary school close to Riga. One of the first things he did as a new principal in his school last year, was introduce a values or character building programme for students. Through a series of conversations with teachers, parents and pupils, they identified five character traits they wanted to cultivate in students every day in school. These were – DETERMINATION, PERSISTENCE, RESPONSIBILITY, HONESTY, RESPECT. School staff from teachers to cleaning ladies could give students stickers as a token of appreciation when students acted in accordance with these values.
In the beginning, teachers firmly requested that there should be detailed, written guidelines for granting the stickers – a scripted, making-sure-there-is-a-document-for-everything, approach so common in education sector at all levels. Igors declined this suggestion. He had learned his leadership lessons. Instead of written guidelines, there is an all-staff meeting every Monday morning where teachers share examples of occassions when students were given stickers, making it a shared learning experience, enabling the teachers to become owners of their actions.
In a recent conversation with Igors, he shared with me his most significant lesson as a school leader. Initially he had thought that the way to work with teachers would be to pressure them into setting ambitous and measurable goals for students and monitor that these get accomplished. Now he tells me – it’s all about respect and dignity, about treating teachers as professionals rather than managing them like workers performing low value-add jobs who are ordered to follow instructions.
Teaching as Leadership
Putting thousands of children on a transformational life-path requires MORE teachers who see teaching as an act of LEADERSHIP. It is not about Earth-shattering, mind-boggling teaching methods or state-of-the-art technology (even though that can help), but about daily acts of exercizing your professional freedom and responsibility to:
- set ambitious goals for children,
- invest children and their significant adults in achieving the goals,
- create a productive learning environment,
- plan strategically and execute your plans effectively,
- constantly engage in evaluating your work making sure that all roadblocks to kids’ learning have been removed.
BELIEVE ME, developing such leaders is UNBELIEVABLY hard. It requires:
(a) unwaivering FAITH in human ability to change for the better;
(b) ability to keep a straight face when observing quite a few short of perfect lessons along the way;
(c) deep conviction that youthful, sky-is-the-limit ambition and humility can make great bedfellows, and
(d) most importantly, relentless cultivation of a proactive problem-solving mindset.
There is little space for sitting around and whining how bad everything or everybody is. The message is clear – what can I DO to make things better. We see this message getting through to children -– what can you DO to take charge of your destiny.