Teacher-powered schools, from vicious cycles to virtuous circles

Robert Comeau
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As a teacher I have always felt empowered, and the base of that power has been the voice of my students. Twenty years ago, I was lucky to start my career in a small college prep program for juniors and seniors in Boston, called Another Course to College (ACC). I found a set of the district’s “Purple Book” in my classroom, a Western literature anthology that began with a short “retelling” of the Iliad. It was a dumbed-down summary, stripped of its epic poetry. I handed out the book, along with a copy of a poetic translation that worked to render in English a sense of the Greek. I asked them which one they wanted, the summary or translation. By an overwhelming margin, they chose the tougher work.

In my experience, most students rise to the occasion when given complex, challenging tasks. They thrive in the freedom and responsibility to construct their own understanding of the texts at hand, and make other meaningful choices that yield an authentic voice in their own education. In a teacher-powered school, educators are free to spread these freedoms, and create student-centered learning. When ACC grew from a 2-year program to a 4-year pilot high school in 2004, we formalized our teacher autonomies in our work agreement. Today, those autonomies have yielded innovations across classrooms that focus on student needs, growth, voice, and choice.

One such innovation came by trying reach a small core of students who were failing my class each year. Most of my students did well in my difficult course of world literature, heading off to college from senior year and doing well when they got there. Every year, however, as much as 10% of the class failed my course, and my efforts to reach these disengaged students were frustrated.

I asked them why they were failing. Often, they’d explain, “I’m just lazy.” Sadly, I repeated their narrative to myself: “They’re just lazy.” For too long, I wrote those kids off, and told myself a story about them learning from failure, which in my heart of hearts I did not believe. We were both stuck in a cycle of negative beliefs reinforcing unproductive behavior. I searched for a way to break that pattern, and discovered the concept of “self-talk” in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I wondered if educators were training students to analyze their thoughts, narratives and behaviors, so they could do and feel better in school.

I spent the next decade researching and designing a book of reflective writing exercises called Know Thyself, to help students and teachers grow together. It uses therapeutic and self-reflective writing to help struggling students get back on track, while deepening teacher knowledge for culturally sustainable pedagogy. A teacher-powered inquiry group helped take this work to the next level. Peer review and iterative inquiry cycles have helped me refine the work, and now share it.

My Know Thyself curriculum is now being used across all grade levels at my high school, and has helped to boost grades and pass rates of users, open students to counseling, and help teachers adapt to student needs.

Bringing therapeutic and self-reflective writing into subjects like English, History, and Biology was a risk for teachers who have traditionally asked students to leave their troubles at the door and focus on subject content. Expanding the teacher's role as a caring adult for the whole student, and a conduit for counseling services, was asking teachers to wear another hat, which some might find ill-fitting.

Creating a book as a teacher, for fellow teachers, has been an empowering and humbling experience at the same time. I've presented this work at the school, district, university, and now national levels, and see that it connects with teachers who have shared my frustrations of reaching struggling students. The complexity of the problem has humbled me, but I am inspired to continue this work, and adapt it to other contexts.

My school now makes space for the whole student to write reflectively, and empowers them to author their own change, communicate their strengths, and imagine brighter futures. Local and national audiences are getting the message of reflective dialogue between students and teachers as a conduit for teacher growth, and a new level of student-centered instruction.

Today I feel the success that my students feel as they gain traction in my demanding course, now that I've learned how to better reach the whole student, and adapt to their lives, needs, cultures, strengths and challenges. I am now more adaptive and flexible, and have shed the old-school rigidity that the teacher-powered schools movement is working to free teachers from.

Teacher-powered schools create and adapt to innovation, like reflective writing for struggling students, and the teachers struggling to reach them.

About the author: Robert Comeau has taught world literature to seniors at Another Course to College in Boston for 20 years. At this pilot school that cultivates strong teacher leaders, he has helped shape the school's election to work agreement, inclusion model, literacy instruction and technology program. A teacher-researcher in therapeutic and self-reflective writing, his Know Thyself text is being used across grade levels at ACC, to facilitate student and teacher growth.