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Interview Of The Month: John Norton From The Teacher Leaders Network

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As regular readers know, I post a monthly feature called “Interview Of The Month.” It’s focused on people in education who I want to know more about. You can see previous interviews here.

This month, I’m interviewing John Norton, director of The Teacher Leaders Network. I was invited to join TLN this year, and it’s helped me become both a better teacher and better thinker on education issues. I knew of John earlier through his generous sharing of resources through Middleweb, one of the “granddaddies” of ways to share education resources on the web. You can also follow John on Twitter at @middleweb.

My guest next month will be Jim Burke, author of numerous books and founder of the popular English Companion Ning group.

1) You’re known as the co-founder and moderator of the Teacher Leaders Network, and you’re also involved in other projects that support classroom teachers. What’s your own background?

I’m A graduate of a small southern high school. BA in English; most of an MA in history. I spent the best part of 25 years bouncing between roles as an education journalist and a staffer for non-profit education groups, several of which advocated on behalf of what were then called “disadvantaged students.” I’m old enough that some of this took place during the intense years of school desegregation.

In the mid-90s I went to work for myself and continue to write, edit and (in the 21st century) support virtual communities of educators. In the course of my career, I’ve written in-depth about schools in Long Beach CA, Louisville KY, Chattanooga TN, and many districts in Alabama and South Carolina. I guess I’ve interviewed more than 1000 teachers and several hundred principals. I received a first-place prize for investigative reporting back in the 1980s from the Education Writers Association, where I later served on the board of directors.

2) Can you describe the Teacher Leaders Network and how you become its moderator?  And what exactly is the Center For Teaching Quality, which sponsors TLN?

Let me turn that around and tell you something about the Center for Teaching Quality first. It was an outgrowth of two fairly famous teaching policy reports from the mid-1990s, “What Matters Most” and “Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching.” The effort behind these reports, led by Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford and others, was the first big push to position teachers as the most critical factor in students’ success AT SCHOOL. I capitalize that because the research doesn’t say teachers alone can overcome all the outside factors that influence student success. But the message of those reports and the follow-up work inspired by them has been that teachers are the essential component of public education and they need to be supported at the highest levels to do their jobs well.

The “Matters Most” reports was written by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. After the report came out, the Commission supported several initiatives to spread its ideas. One of those was to establish the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality at the University of North Carolina. Barnett Berry launched the Center which became a private non-profit a few years later, with Barnett as its CEO. CTQ’s “pledge” is to advance the teaching profession – in part by promoting teacher leadership and teacher voice in important decisions that impact the daily professional work of classroom educators.

So creating the Teacher Leaders Network was a logical step for CTQ to take. Barnett and I had been friends and colleagues for many years. He and I were instrumental back in the 1980s in starting the South Carolina Center for Teacher Recruitment — a state-supported organization with few bureaucratic entanglements that was an early advocate for teacher voice and leadership (now known as CERRA). I was SCCTR’s first director and Barnett its first major consultant. One of our chief accomplishments was establishing a Teacher Cadet honors course in more than 100 high schools, where academically able students learned about the complexities of the profession and had a chance to work with accomplished teachers. I think the number of HS students who’ve completed the course is now approaching 40,000.

When Barnett and I began working together again in 2001, we had a teacher voice/agenda in mind. By 2003, thanks to Barnett’s great skill at fund-raising, we found enough financial support to launch a national virtual network with a sample of accomplished teachers from across the USA. We never had the idea of creating a membership organization like an NEA or NCTE – too expensive and cumbersome to manage. Instead the idea has been to invite a few hundred teachers from among the hundreds of thousands of excellent educators in the United States and ask them to commit some time and effort to exploring important education issues that bear on teaching success. We have members leave us and we invite new members to replace them, but we try to keep membership at around 300-400.

What do we do? First, we talk all the time, in a 24/7/365 private community, using social networking tools. You’re a TLN Forum member so you know about that. We publish excerpts and other “teacher voice” material in a public blog. This discussion can be quite powerful and over months and years, our members have become both well educated about many policy issues and more likely to exert leadership within and beyond school walls. The Forum serves as a ever-ready pool of savvy professionals who write and blog in public places, serve on important policy panels, and participate in what we call “TeacherSolutions projects,” which involve careful study of a major issue affecting teaching and learning, followed by a major report that adds the voices of expert teachers to the debate. Our latest initiative in this area is around the importance of school working conditions on teacher effectiveness.

When we began TLN, it was very difficult to find philanthropic support for the teacher leadership/voice idea. Six years later, the curve seems to be catching up with us – many more foundations and education groups are beginning to see the wisdom in asking teachers for ideas about the right ways to improve schools. We’re always interested in hearing from outstanding teachers who might be willing to commit some time to the TLN work. Right now, we’re especially interested in recruiting some outstanding younger teachers in the first decade of their careers. Anyone who’s interested can email me – including a resume or background info would be good.

3) I understand the Center For Teaching Quality is doing a project with the National Education Association focusing on “high needs” schools.  What’s that all about?

As you know, a lot of the so-called “teaching quality debate” tends to circle around high-needs schools. All of the issues we may raise about the kinds of supports and commitments teachers need to do their jobs count double for those working in high-needs schools, urban or rural. CTQ produced a paper recently for NEA that looks at all the best research on what it will take to recruit, retain, develop and sustain teachers who are both eager and well prepared to serve kids who so often see their teachers come and go through a revolving door. The NEA is launching several initiatives to address these issues and CTQ’s paper and continuing advice are part of that.

4) How would you characterize any differences between the concerns and questions raised by teachers with whom you’ve worked between ten or twenty years ago and now?

Well, that’s a dunk-shot question! Let’s all say it together: No. Child. Left. Behind. Not the idea of it – not the dream of making school better for all kids that led many well-meaning progressive reformers to fall for it. But the reality of it. I’ve always felt that the well-meaning group of folks who supported NCLB (there’s a less well-meaning group too, as we know) fell for a bait-and-switch. The bait was “we need to help these kids get an education and get out of poverty.” The switch was that instead of placing the blame for their condition where it belongs – on our entire society and our culture of haves and have-nots – somebody switched the villain in the story to the American public school teacher.

Of course I realize that NCLB has impacted teachers across the board, not just in our highest needs schools, but that’s how it started and teachers in those schools still bear the greatest brunt of the top-down sanctions and general professional humiliation. The teachers I hang out with every day at the Teacher Leaders Network are truly top-notch educators. They set the highest standards for themselves and their profession. They’re not in the business of protecting “weak teachers,” they just understand that the real problems in our public schools are not going to be addressed by an “off with their heads” strategy.

These are teachers who are eager to get policymakers to listen and learn about the genuine core problems – and some expert solutions. But it’s a hard go. It’s much easier to grab the public’s attention these days with a cartoon villain — and her/his counterpart, the heroic teacher who is defying the status-quo simpleton teachers who have somehow taken over our schools en masse when the public wasn’t looking. That’s meant to be sarcasm, in case anyone is thinking of sending me a blistering email or tweet.

5) What’s your “take” on the recent “Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today” survey that says 40% of teachers are disheartened?

See the previous question for part of my answer. But you know, I have great hope. When that report from Public Agenda hit the streets this past October, there was a LOT of discussion about in our TLN community and in the many blogs published by our various members. The report divided teachers up into three groups: disheartened, contented, and idealists. Many of our folks thought about that awhile and came to the conclusion that they fell into all three of those categories. It depended on which day you surveyed them.

I have the luxury of pontificating from outside the classroom, so take this with that in mind. But I see some real movement lately in the level of respect for teachers and (more importantly even than that) the level of willingness to turn to teachers and say, “Hey, you work in schools don’t you? What do YOU think would help?” Yes, “duh, what took you so long?” But better late than never. In the midst of a semi-depression, budget-cutting, and deep growling all around us, it’s hard to see it. But there could be a tunnel and there could be light down there at the end. And not a train!

6) What do you think are the things that seem to get teachers in the Teacher Leaders Network most energized, and can that be extrapolated to teachers in general?

I’m not sure about “teachers in general,” but I am sure – since I have contact with many other teachers in all the different work I do – that there are hundreds of thousands, maybe several million, teachers who would be energized by the news that they would all be held to the same standards, that they and their peers would devise those standards, that the standards would recognize the particular work they do, that they would be compensated at a professional level and in a professional way (with rewards for excellent performance that they help design), and that hybrid roles would be created that would keep them in classrooms working with kids throughout a career, but also give them time to pursue other leadership work directly related to improving schools, students and teaching. How’s that?

Thanks, John!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

6 Comments

  1. John Norton speaks for me! Hybrid roles indeed! I’m about 15 years into my teaching career (with one year off in the middle to be a full-time dad), and I’m wondering how long I can sustain this. Partly because teaching is exhausting, but also because I find myself so energized by what I could say, do, write, or accomplish outside the classroom. Still, I’m convinced that I’ll do those things better if I continue to teach, and they can make me a continually improving teacher. I’ll be agitating and working to help make those roles more common.

  2. If more stakeholders had John Norton’s gift for listening, nuturing, organizing, and promoting teacher voice we might might be making greater strides in improving public education. Hybrid roles are surely the answer and finding time and places to work together as professionals could be transformational. John’s work with TLN among teachers who are willing to spend their late night hours addressing instruction and policy reflects the power of shared knowledge, thinking and speaking to the issues that teachers know and understand most intimately.

  3. Interviewing John Norton–what a great idea!

    There is this myth that only teachers can inform dialogue and debate on teaching. Not so. John has been a clear-eyed, thoughtful advocate for teaching and teachers for–well, decades now, because of his personal integrity, intelligence, and willingness to suspend judgment and hear all sides of the story. These are rare and valuable qualities in anyone, and especially important for an education journalist. The future of education media is here, and it has been shaped in large part by pioneers like John.

  4. For nearly a decade now (first through MiddleWeb, then through Teacher Leaders Network), John has been an inspiring, encouraging, gentle and thoughtful presence in my life. Without him and the deep conversations he so carefully and quietly nurtures, I might not have slipped almost without noticing it into something very like the hybrid role he envisions in this interview. Thanks for doing this interview and giving us insight into a person whose influence has been so positive and widespread.

  5. Am I blushing or is that my rosacea?

    I wanted to duck in here and offer a tiny bit of evidence related to my response to Larry’s question #5. The Center for American Progress just released a paper aimed entirely at thinking about ways to open up a more substantive dialogue with teachers around assessing teacher and teaching effectiveness. While I won’t suggest that all teachers will love this paper, those of us who’ve had some dealings with CAP in the past know that they’ve been slow to come to the idea that teachers must be full partners in improving schools and helping more students succeed via wise policy. The simple fact that CAP thinks a paper like this is important to produce is evidence to me that there’s a shift in the wind’s direction. Here’s the link:

    http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/12/value_added.html

  6. Larry,
    A wonderful interview with a wonderful human being! John is the epitome of brilliance and kindness, the older brother you always wanted. As Bill Ivey described above, I have had the pleasure of knowing John since Middleweb, the first professional virtual community I was a part of. John nurtures and encourages teachers to share their stories from the classroom, so that others will feel firsthand what it is like to work with young people all day. Larry, you have done an amazing job having John share the story of how Barnett had an incredible vision brought to fruition,which is changing education policy and lives, now and in the future.
    thank-you so very much for sharing this.

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