Each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.
Renee Moore has been teaching high school in the Mississippi Delta for over fifteen years. She is a colleague in the Teacher Leaders Network, a popular blogger, and part of a group of educators that have recently initiated a direct dialogue with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
What led you to teaching and, more specifically, what led you to teaching in the Mississippi Delta?
I married into the Delta. My husband was born and raised here on a sharecropper farm by his grandparents. He moved to Detroit to get work in the auto factories; that’s where he met me. He is a minister, and we’ve always worked primarily with young people. In 1987, after much prayer, we determined that God wanted us to take our work and our family to Mississippi. He kept saying, “The kids down home need what we’re doing here; they don’t have anything like this.”
To me, moving to the Delta was like walking into the middle of a black-and-white movie; it’s been quite a cultural adjustment. Back in Detroit, I had done some freelance writing for local publications, so I needed something else to do. And, through a series of very strange events, the only place we could find to live with our four children was in the married student housing of the local college, which meant one of us had to go back to school. I volunteered, but couldn’t decide on a major since the school didn’t offer journalism. As my husband was leaving out one morning he hollered back over his shoulder, “You like to write, and you like kids. Why not try teaching!” Turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
Much of the national attention on schools appears to miss rural areas. Do you think that there tend to be specific strengths and weaknesses unique to many rural schools?
Rural schools, of course, reflect the strengths and weaknesses of rural communities today. The schools and districts tend to be smaller. The high school I attended back in Detroit had over 5,000 students; whereas, both of the high schools in which I’ve taught had fewer than 400 students. The teachers and students know each other well; heck, many of them are related. We shop together, eat together, bowl together, attend church together. Many of the students I have taught were also members of the non-profit youth organization my husband and I started when we moved here.
That close-knit characteristic, however, can also be a weakness with rural schools. Sometimes, the people (adults and students) are very parochial and narrow in their views and suspicious of what’s not from “around here.” Rural schools are among the poorest and most under-resourced. Many of our students have to be bussed great distances to get to school; this sometimes makes providing after school or extra curricular programs difficult. On the other hand, few of them have traveled very far from their home county. The rural poor have fewer resources available to them; and much of rural poverty is hidden. Most of our talented young people, if they graduate, leave the area to attend college or pursue careers and few return to their communities. Those that do have trouble finding jobs. Like many inner city schools, rural schools often have trouble attracting and keeping teachers. Some of these problems are being lessened by technological innovations.
You’ve been involved with the Teachers Leaders Network writing a book on what the teaching profession might look like in 2030, and have recently written about it in Educational Leadership. Can you give a “sneak peek” into some points that will be in the book?
I am really excited about this book. I along with 11 other members of TLN worked for over a year on the background research for the book and then on our own writing. We talked with a host of interesting and informed persons: futurists, researchers, economists, educators. Among the most important points in the book are our vision of what we call the “Emergent Realities,” what the context of our teaching will look like 20 years from now. For example, we envision more personalized learning, expansion of teacher residencies, seamless connections in and out of cyberspace, teacher unions evolved into something closer to professional guilds.
At the same time, we believe school buildings will become hubs for more coordinated community services as well as places where students and teachers meet face-to-face to supplement virtual learning or to coordinate the work of learning teams. One of our team members came up with the concept of “teacherpreneurism” – practicing classroom teachers at the forefront of educational innovation and getting paid for it (that section alone is reason enough to read the book). We also lay out six “levers of change” that will bring affect whether and how soon we reach these realities. We also address issues of equity and actions that need to be taken now to ensure the best possible future for the education of all students.
When you look at what is happening both nationally and locally with teachers and schools today, what are two things that you are excited about and two things that make you feel frustrated?
Let me take this one in reverse. What frustrates me right now is the building chorus of anti-teacher, anti-public education demagoguery in the media and political circles. I categorically reject the proposition that everything in education would be better if more of it were privatized and subject to market forces. A free, quality, education is an essential and fundamental right of every citizen. My other frustration is the hypocrisy of holding teachers accountable for student learning outcomes while in most places giving us little or no control over the conditions under which we teach and our students learn. Remember, I have taught my entire career in an open-shop, no tenure, no collective bargaining state. If half of the charges made against the teacher unions were true, then we and the other Southern states should be at the top in terms of student achievement, which of course, we are not.
What excites me are the examples I see around the country of communities where parents, teachers, administrators, students and others are coming together to “turnaround” their own schools; to reclaim and restore educational excellence. I’m also encouraged by the growth and depth of teacher networks across the nation and the globe. Developments such as the k12online Conference, the Professional Learning Practice Networks, of course – Teacher Leader Network, all sorts of Nings, collaboratives, and other groupings of teachers bode well for the future health of our profession.
What is a book — or two or three — that you’d encourage both new and veteran teachers to read?
There are so many great books (articles, publications, blogs, e-books, etc) out there for teachers today. A couple that I would encourage others to read and reference include: Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children – a wonderful book not just for teachers of Black students, but for every teacher to remind us of the importance of truly knowing and respecting our students. For new teachers and close-to-being-burned out veterans there’s a short but wonderful piece by my TLN colleague, Cossondra George “Wonder Teacher” or the similar-themed “We Cannot Let Our Work Consume Us” by Ellen Berg.
As an English teacher, I find myself going back to Mina Shaughnessy’s Error and Expectations which is about a whole lot more than just teaching writing. I also recommend Into the Classroom: Developing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning by Thomas Hatch. Disclaimer: I am in the book, but I suggest it because it uses the examples of real teachers to drive home a point very important to me: the need for teachers to be both practitioners and scholars in our own classrooms. To quote from the opening of the book, “every teacher and student can benefit from an educational system in which teachers critically examine and build on the work and ideas of their colleagues” (xxiv).
You’ve written about parent engagement in schools. What have you seen that has worked effectively?
I’ve seen what can happen when parents really trust teachers, and teachers genuinely respect parents. I’m thinking of one school back in Detroit that had been all but given up to the neighborhood dope dealers and gangsters. Parents and teachers united to reclaim the school and over just a couple of years, it became a highly successful, vibrant educational oasis. Here in Mississippi, where as I mentioned earlier, teachers do not have the protections of tenure or collective bargaining, I’ve seen instances in which parents and students rallied valiantly to protect teachers from unfair treatment.
More often though, I’ve seen the effects of strong parent-teacher collaboration at the classroom level make all the difference for children. In an area like the Delta where over 40 – 50% of our adult population is illiterate, parents expect teachers to “do right” by their children, not only opening doors of educational opportunity, but helping them navigate the often bewildering educational journey. To care for other people’s children as if they were our own is still the most effective way for educators to reach their parents.
Is there anything else you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about already?
My husband and I have raised 11 children; two of whom had special needs. No two of our children are alike. I’ve now taught thousands of students; each one different and precious. We as parents and educators must reject the attempts to standardize and restrict children in either curriculum or assessment. One reason parents have been shut out of the educational process in many ways is that schools were designed at the turn of the last century to make it convenient for adults to mass educate children efficiently. It’s time to redesign public education to make it effective for children and convenient for their families.