CharterFolk Contributor Wendy Edwards – The Sauce

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Wendy Edwards, Executive Director of Early Childhood Academy Public Charter School.   

I provide Wendy’s bio below.

Wendy Edwards is a longstanding educator in the public school sector of the District of Columbia. She is the founding principal and current executive director of Early Childhood Academy Public Charter School. Before moving to the public charter school community in 2005, she served as a teacher, special education coordinator, and assistant principal in public schools throughout the city. Wendy received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Boston University and a master’s degree in educational psychology from Howard University.

The Sauce

It was 1977, and I was an eager and spirited young African-American woman with an ink-still-wet degree in elementary education.  I was just beginning my journey as a teacher in the District of Columbia Public School System.  It was a time of evolving understanding of how public schools should look and what they should aspire to be, especially in the underserved and largely African-American communities where I chose to work.  During the 1970s, school districts around the country were beginning to commit to increased inclusiveness and equitable access to education for minorities and special needs students.  Simultaneously, they grappled with lackluster test scores and minimal teacher accountability.  As a brand-new teacher, I navigated a succession of initiatives and philosophical approaches that began for me with “open space” schools.  These schools were designed to promote teacher teaming and student collaboration by removing walls that separated one classroom from the next.  When the wall-less spaces failed to create the expected engagement, we erected homemade barriers using mobile chalkboards and bulletin boards and returned to the status quo.  Later, we moved to the district’s “competency-based curriculum”, or CBC.  CBC included math and reading checklists, designed to track skills instruction and validate student learning.  When that sometimes resulted in a lack of needed differentiation within the classroom, CBC began to fade.  Afterward, a brief but impactful initiative dubbed “continuous progress, non-retention” was espoused as affording young students the gift of time to learn by promoting them, regardless of academic deficits.  The belief was that a child may not be ready to learn certain concepts in first grade, for instance, and should be given the opportunity to move on anyway.  Still a young teacher, I leaned on the expertise of more knowledgeable early childhood educators while I struggled to make sense of that approach.  As expected, this resulted in minimal teacher accountability as students sailed through the elementary grades without gaining necessary competencies and foundational skills.

By 2005, I was a newly appointed public charter school principal still seeking the secret sauce that would boost teacher efficacy and lead to student success.  As someone new to charter school leadership, I was thrilled to be unshackled by the mandates thrust upon me in the public school system.  My leadership team and I now had the autonomy to craft an educational program based on the unique needs of our students.

The start of the twenty-first century brought sweeping education reform and with it, the Common Core State Standards.  I fully embraced the Common Core standards as that elixir we had been seeking.  It not only provided teachers with a hierarchy of English Language Arts and Math standards, but it also set a clear bar for the required rigor at each grade level, culminating in students’ college and career readiness.  As with the initiatives that came before it, however, there were successes as well as challenges.  As I moved from my position as principal to that of executive director of the charter school, I experienced it all during the Common Core era.  I felt the exhilaration of our designation in the top tier of public charter schools in the District of Columbia.  I felt the frustration of losing that status as our student outcome data declined.

What I know is that, as I stumbled and fumbled through the many instructional approaches while moving from a neophyte educator to a seasoned one, I became a darned good teacher.  I learned to build relationships with students, use informal assessments to check in on their progress, understand developmentally appropriate approaches to teaching, and encourage students to make connections between themselves and their learning.  I learned to tune into the social/emotional well-being of my students and adjust my approach toward instruction accordingly.  I became good at teaching and my students thrived.

Through the years, I have had the honor of working with many teachers who doggedly excel, not because of the newest educational initiative and not in spite of it, but because of a fundamental understanding of how and why children learn. Teachers who excel may not have a script in their hands, but they always have a clear plan in their head. Teachers who excel know what motivates children to learn. Teachers who excel instruct with grit and with acceptance that the first go round in a lesson will probably need to be adjusted tomorrow. Teachers who excel embrace students’ social cues as critical indicators of their thinking and emotional well-being. Teachers who excel continue to do so, through every new initiative, new philosophical approach, and new state assessment. It really doesn’t matter. Good teachers excel.

As I enter my 18th year leading a public charter school, I’ve come to the realization that good instruction is not garnered from the resources we give teachers nor from the latest research-based approach to teaching and learning that is touted. Good teaching is the result of professionals who, at their core, believe in the work and plan to ensure that their students will succeed. Good teachers know how to reflect on their own teaching and determine what worked and what didn’t. They know not to just reteach but to teach differently. I’ve learned that the secret sauce is not the newest thing that we embrace as educators. It’s quite simply the smart and discerning teacher who takes responsibility for their students’ success. If we can fill our schools with these teachers, the challenge is won.