A lesson in teaching from the grassroots

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

I was in London last week to give a talk on “how to transform 10,000 classrooms” at the annual Teach First/Teach for All conference in London. Some 3,000 teachers and social entrepreneurs from around the world gathered there to discuss ways to re-invent and strengthen the teaching profession. The aspiration of the organisations under the Teach for All umbrella is to enlist promising future leaders from across academic disciplines and careers to teach at least two years in high-need schools and become lifelong promoters of educational quality and equity.

The enthusiasm, commitment and growing professionalism of these grassroots organisations was inspiring. I heard many stories of people who had left successful careers to join the teaching force in order to make a significant impact on the lives of disadvantaged children. In some countries, participation levels have reached the critical mass to have a transformative impact on student achievement, and have made the success of this work both scalable and sustainable. Wendy Kopp, who co-founded Teach for America 22 years ago, recounted the evolution of her organisation from a small group of friends to one that reaches more than 750,000 students. In New Orleans, 25% of teachers are now from Teach for America. In the UK, too, Teach First is now the third largest recruiter of graduates and reaches over 150,000 children.

Still more impressive were the stories told by the young participants who had designed and were delivering intensive training courses for 400 teachers per year in Nigeria – a country with an essentially non-existent teacher-training infrastructure; and a participant from China shared how she was collaborating with local governments to build urgently needed teaching capacity in remote rural areas.

Critics of these organisations maintain that there is just no alternative to the traditional route of undergraduate studies, teacher training and then a career in the classroom. But those critics may simply underestimate the potential for creativity in the field of education that this combination of talent, passion and experience represents. The fact that, in many countries, these programmes are now so attractive that they can recruit the most promising candidates, even where the general status of the teaching profession is in decline, speaks for itself. We should also not overlook the rapid professionalisation of these organisations, which combine intensive initial training, ongoing support, and a work environment in which teachers work together to create good practice. They also offer intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers, and support teachers in their efforts to find innovative ways of teaching.

What struck me most is the vision of social transformation behind all this work – extending from teacher leadership through school leadership, policy and political leadership, up to community organisation. The work of these organisations can complement the OECD’s efforts to design and implement policies by challenging the teaching profession and education systems from within. We should do what we can to engage with them.


Photo credit: Grass roots / Shutterstock

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