Out of all the battles over education in America, there’s one perspective that isn’t always given. If you want to learn about best practices in teaching, it might be a good idea to ask the best teachers. That’s the idea behind a developing teacher podcast series.
“Leading from the Classroom: Insights from the 2016 Teachers of the Year” is a podcast produced by the educational nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) based in Oregon.
Mairi Cooper, a music teacher from Fox Chapel Area High School and Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year, is one of the voices included in the series.
The best way to improve education in the long run, Cooper says, is to show more people exactly what teachers do.
“Open your classrooms to parents, community, and policymakers,” she says. “Invite them to see what you do for children. Change the narrative by giving them a visual of the reality of teaching. It is a tough profession, a noble profession, and a profession that is necessary for the duration of our nation.
“Teachers frequently operate in isolation while others create the narrative around education,” Cooper says. “We can only change that by opening our doors to everyone who is willing to come. But…visitors need to be there for more than 10 minutes for a photo-op.”
There’s another way to help, but it takes effort.
“Join the team,” says Cooper. “We are all working for a single purpose…to raise happy, healthy, thoughtful children. Parents and teachers want the same thing. Support looks different in every classroom, every school, and every district. Generally, if you honestly ask a teacher what might be the best way to help, they will know. Then you have joined the team and the entire community benefits.”
The NWEA’s plan is to present the stories of each state’s Teacher of the Year for 2016, giving a panoramic view of what it’s like to teach in America – and to excel at it. There are 29 episodes so far, including Pennsylvania’s.
“I am passionate about kids and passionate about the work that my fellow teachers do,” Cooper says. “The narrative that public education is failing is untrue in my experience. I believe that I was partly chosen so as to give a voice and a face to all the good teaching that happens in classrooms across the Commonwealth every day.”
This is a common lament among teachers, notes Jennifer Anderson, a spokesperson for the NWEA, who worked on the podcast project.
“I think one of the things that surprised me most was a repeated theme I observed — the sense that teaching is not seen as a profession,” says Anderson. “That these smart, talented people who shape our future – and the lives of our kids – often feel like they are not valued as a professional. I loved hearing many of them use their voices in this podcast series to change that.”
Cooper had no intention of becoming a teacher, at first.
“My degrees are in violin performance from the Eastman School of Music (and) University of Rochester,” says Cooper. “I taught at the college level (at Seton Hill University) and then attended WVU in order to get a doctorate. I finished all the coursework, and my funding ran out.
“I needed health insurance, and Fox Chapel Area needed an orchestra director. I planned on being there for a year, but then I fell in love…with my students. Teenagers have all the intelligence of adults and all the optimism of youth. They are fearless and ferociously funny. I knew within two weeks that I would not be leaving the classroom, so I began to work on getting certified to teach.”
Cooper thinks her roundabout route to teaching has sometimes worked to her advantage.
“I use crazy analogies and will go to great lengths to get and keep my students engaged in learning,” she says. “None of this is actually all that unique. There are so many great teachers – and many, many better than I – who do this every single day.”