Empowering Teachers on World Teacher's Day

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of World Teacher’s Day. Celebrated in Australia on 28 October, it’s a day dedicated to acknowledging, appreciating and raising awareness of teachers, in particular their significant contributions to the economy and communities across the country.

This year’s theme is ‘Valuing teachers, Improving their status’, so we chatted to five educational thought leaders to get their insights on teacher empowerment and future possibilities.

Jared Cooney-Horvath, Megan Iemma,  Therese Joyce, Tom Brunzell and Cheryl Lacey will also be speaking at this year’s Learning and Teaching Conference, which you can register for here.


What are your thoughts on education policy?

Jared Cooney-Horvath: Right now, teachers are getting a lot of top-down push from government policies saying, ‘you have to do this’. Then there’s a lot of bottom-up push from the students saying ‘we want this’. There’s no push back where we can say ‘If you want to tell us how to do our job, first you have to understand what our job is’.

Teachers exist, teaching is an actual profession. There are too many conversations I have had between academics and policy makers where they talk about students, and nowhere in this conversation does the term ‘teacher’ even come into it. Teachers are just seen as props in the overall educational system. The goal is the children, we are the policy makers.

Cheryl Lacey: Teachers on the whole are the most passionate people when it comes to children and communities. We need to provide the capacity for them to have a voice. The majority of teachers don’t understand their professional position when it comes to entitlements or responsibilities.


How can we empower teachers?

Jared Cooney-Horvath: To empower the teacher, it’s important to understand the brain and the different ways to conceive of using the brain in a classroom setting. The one thing that everyone wants to know is ‘how do I do my job better?’ If I know ‘this’ about the brain, what can I do to help teach my fifth-graders fractions?

Cheryl Lacey: If a teacher is struggling to differentiate in a particular subject area, the common approach is to have the teacher immersed in more professional learning around that particular content area.

We really need to empower teachers and say, ‘who are you? Let me get to know you better. How can I help you evolve as a professional?’

As educationists our goal and vision is to assist others to learn, so it’s imperative that we see ourselves as life long learners.

It’s a teacher’s position and  professional responsibility to actually nurture their own profession. So if we don’t start with them and empower them , then we have no voice from within to affect change at that policy level.

Megan Iemma: To empower our teachers, data is really important, no matter what kind of data it is. Whether it’s an individual education plan or a learning plan, data needs to be easily accessible online, and updated regularly, especially because there are often medical or specialist reports that get added.

To have that data available and easily accessible is vital to help teachers make decisions. There can be problems when teachers aren’t up to scratch with their digital literacy, but more importantly, it’s confidence and empowerment.


What can teachers integrate into the classroom?

Therese Joyce: Positive education works well and works best when it’s integrated within school life. Topics such as gratitude, or being mindful or curious, are great to have integrated in a science classroom. Students are then curious and keen to discover something, and in turn start practicing gratitude in their everyday interactions.

Some schools may not have the resources or capacity to create separate classes for students. However, there are always opportunities, whether in mentor groups or homeroom or interactions between staff and students, to encourage positive relationships and respectful communication.

Tom Brunzell: At Berry Street we think of ourselves as the intersection of Trauma Informed Practice and Wellbeing. We have developed a process, called the Berry Street Education Model to allow teachers to be therapeutically informed. We are not trying to turn teachers into therapists, nor should they be. We are teachers. We’re there for instruction, and learning.

Trauma Informed Practice and Wellbeing are what we want every student to have the opportunity to learn. When working with vulnerable or trauma affected students, there are things that some of our best therapists know; how to approach students, how to de-escalate students, how to create mind-body connections, how to build stamina for learning and  relationships. All of these therapeutic principles have been silo-ed into one area of social care.


What are the outcomes of empowering the teacher?

Jared Cooney-Horvath: What we found is that as a conceptual understanding, as a framework with which to start thinking about your job, it’s really powerful. We’ll start talking with teachers about the brain and looking at different systems, the memory, attention, and you will hear teachers say, ‘oh, that’s why my students...’.

Teachers always knew that that it existed, it’s just that now they have a different framework by which to look at it. The framework didn’t add any specifics to the behaviour, all it did was give it a nice new umbrella under which to conceive of it.

When you change your conception of something that's when you can start to get creative. That’s when you can feel ownership and start to tackle it and try different things with it.

Megan Iemma: We’re discovering that more students are getting diagnosis because of data patterns. That’s a really important thing, because there are things that teachers are picking up, that when they go to pediatricians, or speech pathologist or occupational therapists, intervention can happen much quicker because there is data.  

Tom Brunzell: Often we work with teachers when they’re at the end of their rope, or with schools when they need an approach for engagement and academic instruction.

It’s great to see those golden moments when you’re working with a teacher and you realise the lightbulb goes on for them and they know there are so many more things they can do to increase engagement, motivation, willingness and rigour for their students.

What should be our future goals towards teacher empowerment?

Jared Cooney-Horvath: Over the next ten to twenty years the big mission is to start to systematise and legitimise empowerment so that when policy, parents and students all come in, the first line of defence is: ‘First you have to know what I do. Until you know my job, you can’t tell me how to do it.’

Another big push is to recognise that brain based education, brain products, brain-anything really has nothing to do with the brain at all. It has to do with education. So anything meaningful from the brain is naturally just going to be a new way to frame stuff that we have been doing for hundreds of years in the classroom.