Cara Littlefield is REAL Projects Coach, and former High Tech High teacher.
Teachers at High Tech High in San Diego, California are not part of teacher’s unions. They do not have long term contracts. If staff do not perform, they are not re-hired. They do not receive high pay (I personally took an almost $10,000 pay cut just to work at High Tech). And there certainly isn’t a lack of accountability; High Tech High teachers have people in their classrooms on a regular basis. In a typical month you may have parents, principals, school founders, board members and/or visitors from around the world popping into your room. These visits often come with little to no warning.
Concurrently, High Tech High is also one of the most innovative school networks in the world. Teachers are empowered, they are enabled to become facilitators of learning, and above all, they are free to take risks. Risk helps demonstrate what exactly makes High Tech High so unique.
We teach our students to have ownership over their own learning, and as such, we empower them to convey that learning to their parents. Instead of parent evenings, we have student led conferences (SLC’s) where we allow for about 15-20 minutes per conference, and meet with all students. One teacher mentioned that at her son’s school, students who were doing well were empowered to conduct their SLC’s at home with their families. I thought this would be a great idea to bring to High Tech. I developed a plan for how to do it, including a reflection sheet for families to fill out and return to us to let us know how the conference had gone. I brought it to my principal and we discussed the pros and cons. He was sceptical at first, but allowed me to bring it to the staff. At our staff meeting, we agreed to give it a try.
At the end of term, I pulled the students who would be allowed to conduct their SLC’s at home and told them what was expected. I also assured them (and their parents) that they could still come into school to do their SLC if they chose. The home feedback, however was very positive. Parents were relieved that they could meet with their children in their own time without having to take time off of work. Many also remarked that the SLC sparked an authentic conversation with their family that wouldn’t have occurred had they been at school. More importantly, students appreciated being able to truly take ownership of the experience.
It is only through the platforms of teaching that High Tech High enables, that I felt confident taking such a risk. The reasons? Here’s just three:
- Time: We started each day an hour before the students did. This time was set aside to meet with colleagues in order to plan and reflect. This time not only allowed me to talk with teachers about the idea of at home SLC’s in the first place, but it also provided the necessary time for me to bring the idea to the whole staff for further discussion. As with this experience, no matter what decision I made I knew that I had an established time in the working week to discuss it with at least one other person before putting into practice.
- Ownership: One of High Tech’s guiding principles is ‘Teacher as Designer’. As a teacher, I was given the freedom to determine the order of my curriculum, what assessments to use and what projects to teach. As my experience above illustrates, the ownership extended school wide as well. Not only did I help shift the structure of SLC’s, I helped create the school calendar and the daily timetable. I helped sort students into classes and had a part in co-developing the school’s core values. This wasn’t because I was in middle management (that doesn’t exist at High Tech) or because I was asked to do so. It’s because it needed doing and I volunteered. If something wasn’t going right, we all worked together to come up with solutions. We took risks, so as a community we either celebrated success or went back to the drawing board.
- Support: Because staff worked so closely together and were given the time to do so, we held each other accountable to high standards. Trust was essential: school leadership trusted us to take informed risks and we trusted them to stand by us if not everything went according to plan. I didn’t just come up with the idea of at home SLC’s and implement it, I researched what other schools were doing. I talked with other teachers, and I developed a systematic plan for implementation. As long as you had sound reasons for taking risk and modified your plan if it didn’t work, you were generally supported.
These conditions are only part of the overall ethos of High Tech High. As an organisation we focus on what should matter in education, preparing students to succeed in the real world, outside of campus. Yes our students take the same standardised tests as everyone else, and yes they do as well, if not better than other schools. But that isn’t the focus. We focus on feedback from students and parents, on monitoring student attainment through daily interaction, on teaching students rigorous content through meaningful real world experiences, on preparing students for the world outside of school through teamwork, critical thinking and technology, on improving teacher pedagogy through meaningful professional development.
In my opinion, this is what makes High Tech so successful; the school has a clear vision of what’s really important for students to thrive, and teachers are given an environment in which they feel safe trying innovative approaches to achieve it.