Coffee Break: Milken Educator Award Winner Dan Adler on What It Takes to Grow Great Teachers

Dec 6, 2017 12:00:00 AM


When Dan Adler started his college career at Yale University, he thought he would become a chemist. When he graduated in 2007, he went into management consulting. After exploring the worlds of journalism and nonprofits, he found his calling and joined Teach For America (TFA) in 2011. Today, Adler teaches science to sixth-graders at Up Academy Leonard in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He aspires to be the next Bill Nye and engages his students with songs, projects and even fiery cheese sticks. In November, he won the prestigious Milken Educator Award. Adler talked about his journey to become an outstanding teacher and what it will take to build a strong and diverse teacher workforce. Are you a coffee drinker? How do you take your coffee? I am a prolific coffee drinker. I’m not sure I know a teacher who isn’t. Either black or with a little skim milk. As much as I love Massachusetts, the “coffee regular” thing (cream and sugar) never stuck. I never got there. What can we do to help more people like you get into science teaching? Honestly, I wish I had a good answer. When I graduated in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, most people I graduated with were going to grad school or med school. I was the odd duck. Teach For America made it very clear to me that our students deserved to have excellent math and science teachers. Our students deserved to have teachers with degrees in molecular biology. It is so important that students have a teacher who knows the content. Our students deserve a teacher who is passionate and well-trained in their subject area. It is so important to student-learning that they have teachers with deep knowledge. Something I think TFA has done so well and made clear is this aspect of the mission of teaching: No matter where you come from or what your ZIP code is, you deserve the same quality of education as anywhere else in this country. What was your first-year teaching experience like? How did you find ways to improve? I think I was your average train wreck of a first-year teacher. I had a great mentor. The only professional development I focused on after my first year of teaching was classroom management. If you don’t have a foundation of routines and expectations and management skills, you can’t do the engaging lessons you want to do. I went to a multi-day professional development on tools and establishing the climate in your classroom. I was ready for my second year. I had a really successful second year. I became adept at classroom management. My students knew what I expected from them so they could devote their energy to learning. Now every year I get to expend my energy on other more interesting and diverse things, both in my classroom and in my own professional growth. I’m really proud of my evolution year over year as a teacher. It’s not a sexy answer but that’s what made me an effective teacher. The idea of teacher prep and what teachers need for day one and what they need to grow is something I have become very passionate about. It is not unique to the TFA experience to walk into a classroom and struggle your first year. There are things we can do to make sure that years one to three aren’t more about teacher learning than student learning. Such as? It’s really important to have a practical pedagogical training. That means you’re not just studying theory of education. It’s important you are learning how to teach your subject area, and getting training in classroom management. I still remember going over research that said there’s a strong link between the amount of management practice and first-year success. Once you get good at that, you can focus on content and how to get it across to students. Researchers saw a similarly strong correlation between knowledge of content strategies and success in the second year. It’s crucial to get training in how to support language-learners and students with disabilities. You need clear and specific pedagogical tools to support whichever students come through your school doors. So much research says it’s critical to have a year-long experience with a veteran, well-vetted mentor teacher, and to ensure there’s a strong tie between your mentor teacher and the teacher preparation program. What about building a diverse teaching force? What are the keys there? It’s about recruitment and retention. On the recruitment side, we need more explicit supports to bring more educators of color into the system. When I think about why I got into teaching, I think about the teachers I looked up to: my high school history and chemistry teachers. I could understand that if you don’t see mentors who match who you are in education you might not find a lifeline in the profession. This means we need to think about how we recruit candidates whom we desperately need in the classroom, and yet are people who may not have seen that mentor in their own educational experiences. We also need to ask ourselves: Is our pedagogy within teacher preparation culturally biased? Same goes with licensing exams. If the answer is yes, there’s bias in these exams, we need to address that. On the retention side, when we have diverse new teachers, we can’t place all the burden of addressing diversity in students on them. How do you make science fun? Science is supposed to be about exploration and inquiry and discovering. I try to make my class match that. We have a call and response in my class that goes like this: Science is not just facts…science is skills! In my class, you need to be able to make models, do some experiments, collect and analyze data, ask questions. I’m going to push you past where you think you can understand something. I am constantly telling my students: Did you know how important it is that scientists read and write? Otherwise you can’t communicate your findings. Let’s talk about how to read like a scientist. I just try to make it clear to my students how important it is they do their best and that I’m always here to support them. What’s the next challenge in building the teacher workforce we need? The challenge becomes how do you retain those teachers? How are we making it clear how teaching can evolve year over year? This is why I’m grateful to the Milken Foundation. This is not a lifetime achievement award. I’ve been told: You are doing good things for kids. We want you to stay in education and convince some of your students to come into teaching and convince your early and mid-career peers to stay in and transform education.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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