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“You cannot have a better school if you don’t have better teachers,” says Harry Wong. “Teach the teachers to be effective and you will have student achievement.” An acclaimed motivational speaker and the award-winning author of over 30 publications, including the bestseller, The First Days of School, Dr. Wong offers his blunt assessment of the mistakes schools are making in their efforts to improve. In this interview, he explains that the key to success for school districts is to invest in their teachers and their effectiveness, and to develop a culture where everyone knows what the goals, missions and beliefs of the school are and everybody is working towards those. The following is an abridged version of our interview with Harry Wong.
Q: What is your overall vision for a successful school?
Dr. Harry Wong: I’m interested in talking about how to get students to learn and achieve. Students do not learn from a qualified teacher. They learn from an effective teacher. What a principal needs to do is hire for qualification and then train the teacher to be effective.
The three characteristics of an effective teacher are number one: they need to be an extremely good classroom manager. Number two: they need to know how to deliver the subject matter. And number three: they need to have very, very positive expectations for the kids.
Q: What do effective principals do to establish a positive school culture?
Dr. Harry Wong: The primary role of a principal is to establish and nourish a culture. Culture can be defined as what we as a group believe in, and what we do to support and nourish that culture. And so if you ever visit an effective school or an effective classroom, there is a culture. Everybody knows what the goals, mission and beliefs of the school are and everybody is working towards that.
In an ineffective school, they have no culture. So what do these principals and people do? They buy programs. There is no coherent vision as to what they want to accomplish. And so, the very best thing that we can do for an administrator is to give him or her the professional development tools to train his average teacher and just make them a little better, and you’ll see a greater impact across the district than any program initiative will ever bring.
Q: Can you give an example of an effective school culture?
Dr. Harry Wong: Great schools all have one thing in common: they all have school-wide procedures in which the students all know exactly what to do on the very first day of school. The kids all know what’s going to happen. They love it. They’re safe, they’re comfortable, and they are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
In our book, The First Days of School, my co-author Rosemary Wong and I share the story of Bridget Phillips, a principal from Las Vegas who worked with her staff on school-wide procedures, such as, what they do in the morning, how to walk down the hall, what they’re doing during the lunch room, dismissal, classroom procedures, etc. They called it the “school’s success trail” and made giant posters of these school-wide procedures and posted them in every single classroom, cafeteria, and office. Everyone saw what school culture was. They saw what the school stood for, and the kids knew what to do. And as a result, she has an absolutely fascinating, fantastic, successful school.
Successful schools and school districts invest in their teachers and the effectiveness of their teachers.
Q: What makes a successful professional development program?
Dr. Harry Wong: So often it’s just a case of, well, we have an annual in-service meeting on this day, [so] let’s find a speaker. What a waste of time! A good professional development program needs to have some kind of a vision. Richard Elmore of Harvard said, “to improve student learning, you do not change the structure, what you do is you change the instructional practices of the teachers.”
What we need to do is zero in on the teacher’s professional practices and then design a program to get them to teach better. It’s not “more” is better. “Better” is better and the better the teacher, the better the students will learn.
Q: Many school districts across the country have developed mentoring programs, which you have said you dislike. Yet you like coaching programs. What is the difference?
Dr. Harry Wong: Mentoring is one of the biggest fads we have had in our country. It started about 30 years ago. What happens is that the principal gives a new teacher a mentor, someone in the staff, and then walks away, never monitors it, never gives any direction. We cannot continue to just give new teachers a mentor. There is no research to support that it works.
If you look at the Yankees, they don’t mentor their players. They have pitching coaches, they have batting coaches, and they have fielding coaches. A coach has a responsibility to teach a skill. So, may I suggest that what we should do is to start to give new teachers coaches with defined responsibilities within an organized, comprehensive training program, rather than just give them a mentor.
At great schools, the kids all know what’s going to happen. They love it. They’re safe, they’re comfortable, and they are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Q: Can you talk about motivating teachers?
Dr. Harry Wong: The veteran teachers want training. They know the value of training. But what happens is every month, every four years or so, somebody dumps another flavor of the month down their throat and after a while they just throw up their hands and say, I give up. You cannot set goals because they are constantly trying to tell us to do something else. What we’ve been doing is de-motivating our veteran teachers, who really do want to learn. They are motivated.
Q: There is one moment in your speeches that gets a standing ovation. Can you let us know what that is?
Dr. Harry Wong: Teach the teachers to be effective and you will have student achievement. But the history of education has shown that we still haven’t caught that message. For 75 years, we have jumped from one fad, one philosophy, one ideology to another, often times even recycling the same fad or ideology even though it hasn’t worked.
Now back a few years ago, a guy by the name of Wade Carpenter who teaches at Berry College in Georgia, wrote an article in the Kappan in which he said between May 1987 to May 1997, he counted 361 “silver bullets” to reform and even save American education: block scheduling, outcome basic instruction, looping, constructivism, full inclusion, interdisciplinary instruction. Well, that was 1997. Since then we have added whole child, PURE coaching, no child left behind, professional learning teams, smaller school size, ta-da, ta-da, ta-da. In another words we keep rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.
Programs do not produce student achievement. Teachers produce student achievement.
My point is this: Programs do not produce student achievement. Teachers produce student achievement. A school is only as good as its teachers. You cannot have a better school if you don’t have better teachers. And so, the major difference between successful and unsuccessful schools is the following. Unsuccessful schools buy programs. They spend millions of dollars adopting programs and fads of the year, constantly looking for that “silver bullet.” Whereas the successful principal, the successful policymaker, the
successful schools and school districts stress “teacher practice.” They wisely invest in their teachers and the effectiveness of their teachers. They don’t teach programs. The teachers teach academic content and skill.
Instead of spending millions and millions of dollars on another program, we should invest the money on continuing professional development of our teachers and you’ll see improved student learning and achievement!
Q: What are the most important things to do to improve education in our country?
Dr. Harry Wong: We need to improve the quality and the effectiveness of our teachers. Peter Drucker, a business guru, coined the term “human capital” in which he says people are assets. Business people will identify the greatest asset in their companies as “their people” and will spend $53 billion a year to train them.
But if you ask school administrators name their greatest asset, they will often tell you it’s money or programs. In other words what they’re saying is, it’s not our teachers.
We need to continually train our teachers and look at teachers as our major capital asset.