David B. Cohen, a veteran English teacher at Palo Alto High and columnist for Education Week, spent a year crisscrossing California observing some of the state’s best teachers. The result was Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teachers, Thriving Schools, an insightful look at talented teachers, effective practices and promising schools, from Arcata to El Centro. Some interviewees were California Teachers of the Year or, like Cohen, have their national board certification, a distinguished designation. Others are well-known teacher leaders or have word-of-mouth reputations as gifted instructors.
EdSource’s John Fensterwald interviewed David Cohen recently about the book and his findings. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Besides having a great time doing this, why did you write the book?
I was involved in teacher-leadership projects and networks and building up a mental database of really skilled, talented, dedicated people. At the same time, the public discourse around schools and teaching was turning more negative – or that was my perception of it – due to an accumulation of stories, legal actions, ballot propositions. I felt that it might help – certainly help my sanity – and maybe other people if I could find a way to share some of what I know.
You wrote that it was an “antidote to pessimism.” Explain that.
I’m one of those people for whom professional is personal. The accumulation of bad news kind of gets into your system. The idea was that I would need a volume of positivity to outweigh some of the negative.
Part of it is wanting to complicate the thinking of critics who assume, “Well, if our children aren’t turning out the way we want, as a society, and they’re going through a school system, then the teachers must be responsible for the end result.”
We have some very skilled and talented teachers in a school, doing their absolute best, working against the odds, and within some constraints that are beyond their control. We need to take a more complex view of things.
You take the reader into the classroom and show the personal connections that teachers have with students and how important that is, which may be lost in the larger policy debates over education.
Definitely. The intersection of policy and those relationships is difficult to point to, but there’s a moment where I was visiting Martha Infante, who’s a middle school teacher in Los Angeles and very prominent at the state level, too.
Near the end of the day, a student was really struggling. Martha could throw him out and try to put him on a disciplinary path to rectify the problem in the classroom, or keep him in the classroom.
With a lot of the concerns about discipline and disproportionate impact of discipline and suspensions on students of color, that’s all in the atmosphere and in the context for Martha, making this decision at this moment: “What do I do when a student is having trouble getting through the day without being disruptive?”
She handled it quite gracefully, and did a good job of waiting him out. And I describe it as kind of giving him a chance to correct himself, and then she can come in after that and say: “What worked for you today? How did you solve the problem? Why did you manage to kind of pull yourself together?”
I went to Palo Cedro, a little town up near Redding, to a school created by teachers and still run by teachers – Chrysalis Charter School. One of the founders, Paul Krafel, was sitting with and talking with the students at lunch. That’s not going to show up anywhere. That’s not going to help a student master any particular standard directly. But I think that’s powerful. You can never tell which moments are going to stick and form a student’s impression of a class or a teacher or a school.
For readers who really haven’t spent much time in classes, what’s the takeaway?
As they hear about a school, drive past a school, see a school in the news, I hope people can make some positive assumptions and figure that in any school you go to, there are going to be some fantastic people doing some excellent work.
I describe driving up to Lindhurst High School and approaching from the back of the school by accident. It’s a somewhat blighted community. There were students there who didn’t look ready for school. They’re huddled on a corner with their hands deep in their pockets, and their hoods up, and they’re smoking before school.
And, inside of the school, some of the students are also taking AP classes. And some are also athletes. And some are also artists. And some of their teachers are very dedicated to helping them make it. I’m confident that any public school you go past, or hear about, that good is in there.
In your book, you say to focus on conditions, not practices, and you say, quote: “We don’t all need orchids. We need to understand how plants grow.” What did you mean?
I think there’s a lot of insecurity in education, and some of that is inherent in a profession that attracts lifelong learners. Especially if they’re reflective about their work, they’re always trying to think about some way to improve. Community pressures and policies can make administrators and trustees and the community feel a little insecure. And the stakes are high; these are children’s lives and futures we’re dealing with.
You can never tell which moments are going to stick and form a student’s impression of a class or a teacher or a school. – David B. Cohen
So focus on the conditions in which we work and what helps a beginning teacher to thrive – what some schools do, or some teacher preparation programs do, or districts do that make the job viable and help us succeed. I’ve been very happy in my 15 years at Palo Alto High School because a lot that happens in the school and community has allowed me to grow in the job.
Give me a couple more examples of really interesting things you observed.
For an elementary school, I think of Jane Fung, a teacher/leader in Los Angeles, a Milken (Educator) Award winner who’s been involved in a lot of teacher-leadership projects. There’s a real interesting expertise that is required of elementary school teachers to understand how young children acquire concepts and skills across disciplines, to be as expert as possible in literacy, numeracy, scientific thinking, physical education. Jane has a very clear understanding of where her students are at in acquiring the ability to read. And, at this point, should they be learning more about, you know, phonemes at this particular length and complexity? Should they be reading this type of book or that type of book?
That particular school, the Alexander Science Center in Los Angeles, had a really strong science curriculum and science materials, and it’s based in Exposition Park, which is home to the Botanical Gardens and museums. So they could go and visit these places without making it a field trip. There were no streets to cross. No buses involved. That was fantastic to see.
A good middle school that I would love to have more people read about is Desert Springs Middle School, a very poor community outside of Palm Springs. I got to see the school through the eyes of Jessica Simpson, an instructional coach. She seemed to know what would be happening in every classroom.
And if you didn’t know, walking onto the campus, about the high rate of homelessness and the very high percentage of students living in poverty, the sense of calm and the enjoyment that the students had on campus very much reminded me of my children’s middle school in Palo Alto. That was a really pleasant experience with an awareness of how people were working together.
How about high school?
Some of the most interesting programs are going heavily into different kinds of academies, smaller learning communities and career-oriented pathways. I had a chance to glimpse different programs at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco.
I was visiting Valerie Ziegler, who was a California Teacher of the Year and has been very involved in trying to redesign and improve history curriculum. She founded an academy for students interested in careers in teaching. It was really fun to see how she works with that class on site, but then she essentially becomes their supervisor when they’re almost acting as student teachers, or pre-student teachers. I actually got to watch her students doing their work with elementary school students at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School.
There’s a lot of focus on the whole child in this book and social-emotional learning. Is this something that hadn’t been paid attention to? Or does it reflect additional complications and turmoil that some students are bringing to the school, and it’s now being recognized?
There’s a tendency among adults – especially those who have been out school for a long time – we kind of look back and say, “Well, in our time, we didn’t worry about that” or “It wasn’t a big deal.” But that’s happening among the people who made it through, and it’s not the conversation that people who dropped out of high school might be having.
I think we have an emerging understanding of mental health, depression and the effects of all sorts of stressors in kids’ lives. Wise teachers in the past may have had tools and insights into that, but may not have had the language that we would use now or the research insights that we have acquired.
But does this require a different skill set for teachers as we look ahead?
Part of it is a different skill set, and part of it is a shifting of priorities with skills that a lot of people already have. I don’t think any teacher succeeds without some awareness of the social and emotional, interpersonal dimensions of our work. The way we show that differs. Watching a teacher leading students through some mindful breathing exercises, or having students who are taking a positive psychology class at Gunn High School with Roni Habib, is not going to appeal to everyone.
Those are options and tools, and I’m glad they’re catching on. But it doesn’t necessarily require a whole new skill set because I think most of us bring something akin to that to the classroom.