Steven Farr Would Run Our Teacher Mentor Program . . .

Farr, S. (2010). Teaching as leadership: The highly effective teacher’s guide to closing the achievement gap. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Steven Farr leads the teaching training program of Teach for America, a non-profit organization that enlists recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities and leverage research-based instructional strategies to close the achievement gap in American schools. Teaching as Leadership summarizes the high impact leadership principles Farr has identified in his work, providing an overview of research on each strategy, along with powerful illustrative anecdotes from Teach for America teachers who employ them. The book outlines 6 leadership principles: 1. set big goals, 2. invest students and their families, 3. plan purposefully, 4. execute effectively, 5. continuously increase effectiveness, and 6. work relentlessly.

While Teach for America (and this book), particularly focus on leveraging these principles to improve the effectiveness of schools in low-income communities, the power of the concepts and applications will resonate with teachers of our nation’s most affluent students as well. The book provides abundant, powerful stories from teachers in each of the 6 sections of the book that explicate the principles. Farr should succeed in prompting reflection by any reader in our profession on not only the expectations we have for our students, but the expectations we have for ourselves as leaders.

These teachers’ success forces us to ask ourselves some important questions. When we see students excelling in classrooms across the country in high poverty schools, how can we accept the prevailing view that the students’ successes are nothing more than heart-warming exceptions to the inviolable reality of the achievement gap? (p.228)

The importance of high expectations is a key theme that runs throughout the book. Each of the principles identified as key levers on accelerating student growth are rooted in a perspective on the part of the teacher that they can be a difference maker and that extraordinary gains in student achievement are possible if both they and their students are willing to work hard and maintain a growth mindset.

Without exception, the strongest teachers we have studied tap into an amazing phenomenon of human psychology: the self-fulfilling prophecy of high expectations. These teachers recognize that we get from our students what we expect from them. These teachers’ every action is driven by the insight that high expectations cause high achievement. (p.26)

In education, this concept is not new, and is most often cited in our professional training as the Pygmalion effect or the Rosenthal effect, after Robert Rosenthal, one of the researchers who conducted seminal studies demonstrating its impact. What is new in this book is the abundance of powerful first-hand accounts from Teach for America teachers testifying to the impact of it in practice with students. One powerful illustration comes from Brian Wallace, a fourth grade self-contained special education teacher from New York.

I’ll never forget the way that Melia used to beg me to reassess her reading level, even if the next assessment wasn’t scheduled for another month. Every time she would improve her time on a fluency passage or successfully decode an unfamiliar word, she would say, “see, Mr. Wallace? I’m ready to move up another level. Get out the stuff and test me now.” Melia was so invested in becoming a stronger reader and so invested in meeting her goal that absolutely nothing was going to hold her back from getting there–even me. But this didn’t just happen on its own. It took constant reinforcement of her efforts, setting small and attainable benchmarks along the way that would allow her to experience success, giving targeted and meaningful praise, and really celebrating even the smallest step toward the goal. (p.54)

This example also demonstrates the second leadership principle Farr identifies, which is to invest students and their families in the student’s success. In Mr. Wallace’s anecdote, Melia is clearly invested in her own success and demonstrates certainty in the efficacy of her own hard work.

I recently had the privilege to have dinner with Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success whom we contracted to come speak as part of a lecture series for parents in our district. Dweck’s groundbreaking work on the importance of students having a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset” is cited by Farr as a foundational principle of Teach for America’s work. You really should read Dweck’s book, as there is a hazard in oversimplifying her research, but for the purposes of Farr’s book, it is distilled down to the importance of students believing that they can improve their learning through hard work, and that they are not limited by predefined ceilings of possible achievement. Farr employs the term “student investment” and provides a simple formula.

Student investment = “I can” X “I want”

For any endeavor, consciously or not, students are asking themselves, “Can I do this?” and “Do I want to do this?” Your responsibility is to be sure that every student answers yes to both questions. When your students internalize those perspectives and become invested in working hard to reach ambitious goals, they are not only receptive to, but also eager for, instructional leadership. With invested students, your potential for influence expands dramatically. With uninvested students, your efforts will lead to very little learning. (p.57)

High expectations for all students, when combined with investing students and families in the student’s academic success, can enable the teacher to customize their instruction in way to provide class work that requires all students to “work at the frontier” of their abilities. This is a phrase Farr uses to describe the difficulty level where students are challenged, invested, and even frustrated at the appropriate frustration level where learning growth occurs. This is the true power of “differentiated instruction”, a term that has become somewhat of a buzzword and is sometimes misapplied. Farr provides a compelling anecdote of what this looks like in real classes, with real students.

When she started differentiating instruction to be sure her students were working at the frontier of their abilities, she saw that they were much more engaged, on task, productive, and happy. For example, Ms. Fraccaro uses the Developmental Spelling Assessment to differentiate her word study and spelling instruction. After administering this assessment, she is able to ensure that her students can work comfortably with spelling patterns that are on their level. (p.99)

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Teaching as Leadership is the resolve it brings to me as an educator and the potential it has to improve the esprit de corps of our profession. Reading the book, I remember back to the toughest days when I was a full-time classroom teacher and the common thread that ran through almost all of them: exhaustion, combined with the doubt of whether I was having an impact on my students. Farr clearly understands this universal cross that all teachers bear.

One educator suggests that “the most disheartening and discouraging” aspect of teaching is “the fact that results are so intangible and unobservable. A carpenter at the end of the day can actually see what he has built, a doctor can observe the patient responding to treatment, but a teacher oftentimes has to go along for months with relatively few noticeable results.” While the wait for results could be frustrating, highly effective teachers refuse to accept that they cannot find ways to gauge student learning along the way and thereby improve their effectiveness. These teachers create systems that illustrate student learning in the same way a carpenter can see a house or doctor can observe a patient. (p.178)

In a perfect school, Steven Farr would run our teacher mentor program because he would train our teacher mentors to share these key principles of teacher leadership. He would help teachers realize that they are the singular key difference maker in their students’ success and arm them with strategies to help their students invest in their own growth, and ultimately reach self-efficacy their learning.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Amanda Ripley Would Be Our Public Relations Coordinator . . .