Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Answer to Teacher Retention: Find Passion (Not Just Data) Driven Schools

“The older I get the more I realize that the only thing a
teacher has to go on is the rare spark in a child's eyes.”
~ The Rector of Justin, Louis Auchincloss

I was inspired last week after seeing how students at one of the schools I work with had, as principal Barbara Slatin likes to say, “found their light bulbs.”  These students working on projects of deep personal interest in groups, pairs, or alone depending on what worked best for them studying topics they choose. The children were literally bursting with excitement and pride as they explained their discoveries and the importance of the work they were doing.  One pair of students presented their material so well. you forgot you were listening to primary school students. You were simply listening to experienced experts, who in this case happened to be ten years old.  

As I was leaving the building.  I stopped to use the restroom and saw this inspirational teacher. I shared with her how wonderful it was to see her guide students in doing work they cared about so much. She looked sullen and confided, "You know come next month, this goes out the window and all we'll be able to do for the rest of the year is worksheets and test prep.” She said, “It's so depressing when you know you can help kids get excited about learning, but you're forced to put that aside to teach to the test. You see the excitement and love of learning drain right from them and right from me." "Today was wonderful," she said, "but it just makes me more depressed when I think about what I'm going to have to do to these kids and I don't know how much longer I can do this for a living." 

Ugh, my heart sank.  Are we going to lose another excellent, passion-driven teacher to a compulsory system of education that as Seth Godin so aptly expresses, “only values compliance not initiative, because, of course, that’s what’s easiest to measure.” 

Where I work in New York City about 25% of teachers leave the profession within 3 years and that percentage doubles at the five year mark.  Our chancellor says this is the reason:
Teaching is a hard job. We want the ones who are committed. We want the ones who make a difference. We want the ones who want to work hard and really change the lives of these young people. They’re there on a mission. So, you know, some are going to leave.
When our chancellor, who had never been a teacher, said that, I thought of all the passionate, committed teachers who want to make a difference, but quit because they couldn't. My heart sank too.  I was insulted and so were my colleagues. Perhaps if Cathie Black put in her time as her staff is required to do she would understand that our teacher retention issue isn’t the result of weeding out the uncommitted teachers who have no interest in making a difference.  Rather those who leave are often our most qualified. Like New York teacher of the year, John Taylor Gatto, who publicly declared, I'm no longer willing to hurt children, effective teachers who find their hands are tied when they want to make a difference often resign.

In desperation teachers like this one, ask me in confidence how they can find schools to teach in that honor educators who value the passion (NOT DATA) driven learning that some of us (Angela Maiers, Will Richardson, Amy Sandoval, Marc Prensky, etc.) have been talking about.  They want to know if these type of schools really exist or is it just a subversive “teaching style” secretly practiced behind closed doors?  

Fortunately, I have found even in these times where those in charge think the answer to education success is more tests and harder tests, there are school leaders, and school models that indeed honor the passion-driven learning that dedicated teachers and parents value and students deserve.  Below are numerous ways to connect with other schools, school leaders, and educators who believe learning should be driven by passion.  

Ideas for Connecting with Passion-Driven Educators, Leaders, and Schools

Angela Maier has popularized #Passiondriven as the accepted hashtag on Twitter.  Do a search for it and friend everyone who uses it.  You’ll find a lot of great information and great friends who are passionate about teaching and learning with passion when you do.  

Passion driven learning is a popular topic in the blogosphere. Here are the blogs I read to connect with other passion driven educators.
  • The Connected Princpals blog - George Couros, an elementary schooll principal brings us this collection of ideas from principals passionate about their work.  Read this blog.  Hear from these principals. Find the ones whose philosophies you agree with and consider those schools.  
  • The Innovative Educator - This is my (Lisa Nielsen) series of nearly two dozen posts on the topic.  
  • Angela Maiers Passion Conversations - A leader in the conversation of passion driven learning, Angela Maiers brilliantly collected the most passionate educators she knew and asked them to share ideas in the form of blog posts about passion driven learning.  This is a link to that collection where you’ll not only learn a lot, but you’ll also discover other passion driven educators.  
  • The Passion Driven Leader - Yep, there’s a whole blog dedicated to the topic of leaders who are driven by passion for themselves, their students, and their teachers.  Amy Sandvold is the PreK – 8 grade school administrator behind the site. 
Buy these books.  Bring them  to your school.  Share it with colleagues and parents and follow the advice shared.  
Connect with others who are serious about  passion driven learning at these conferences.
  • AERO Conference
    AERO conference provides a platform for comprehensive dialog, movement building, and learning about what “Transforming Education & Our World” means to them, developing the quality and quantity of new schools and other learning environments that respect and meaningfully involve parents, administrators, students, teachers, and community members, supporting the need for authentic youth voice in our schools and other learning environments, engaging with and highlighting established successful models and programs and highlighting the connection between education and social justice and discussing the need to work in partnership outside of traditional education circles to create a more balanced, just, and conscious world.
  • ConFraTute
    Confratute is a combined CONFerence, and instiTUTE with a lot of FRATernity in between. Confratute is geared toward providing educators with research-based practical strategies for engagement and enrichment learning for all students.
  • EduCon
    EduCon is both a conversation and a conference. It is an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas — from the very practical to the big dreams.

Passion Driven School Models
There are a couple models of education that I’m familiar with that have passion driven learning at their core.  Below is an overview of each.
  • Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM)The schoolwide enrichment model provides enriched learning experiences and higher learning standards for all children through three goals; developing talents in all children, providing a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences for all students, and providing advanced follow-up opportunities for young people based on their strengths and interests. The SEM focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences that are constructed around students' interests, learning styles, and preferred modes of expression.
Not surprisingly, in the years following the implementation of No Child Left Behind, this model has lost favor, but it still exists.  Here is a Directory of SEM schools. Sadly, it is outdated, but it is certainly a start.  
  • Free Schools / Democracy SchoolsA democratic education is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely and equally in a school democracy. In a democratic school, there is typically shared decision-making among students and staff on matters concerning living, working, and learning together. At such schools students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through classes or a standard curriculum.Students are given complete responsibility for their own education and the school is run by a direct democracy in which students and staff have an equal vote.(Wikipedia). 
    Here is a list of Schools:
  • Big Picture Learning Schools
    Big Picture Learning schools have a mission is to lead vital changes in education, both in the United States and internationally, by generating and sustaining innovative, personalized schools that work in tandem with the real world of the greater community. They believe that in order to sustain successful schools where authentic and relevant learning takes place, we must continually innovate techniques and test learning tools to make our schools better and more rigorous. They believe that in order to create and influence the schools of the future, we must use the lessons learned through our practice and research to give us added leverage to impact changes in public policy.
    Here is a list of Schools
  • North Star Self Directed Learning for Teens
    North Star is a center for community-based education functioning like a YMCA or other member-based organization.  Member teens choose from among a wide array of educational options depending on their needs and interests.  Founded in 1996 by two middle school teachers, the school serves teenagers who prefer to pursue their educations outside of traditional schooling.
    Here’s what students who attend North Star think about the school:
  • Nuestra Escuela:
    This school has five educational programs in Puerto Rico based on a mission of love. Founded in 2000, it enrolls 300 students who are typically between ages 13 and 22, and their families. The vast majority have had major academic or life challenges. In addition to core academics, students engage in arts, sports, and entrepreneurship.
    Read the IDEA staff's feature on Nuestra Escuela
  • EdVisions Schools:
    EdVisions Schools in a non-profit educational development organization affiliated with the EdVisions Cooperative, the first public school teacher cooperative in the nation. EdVisions Schools help create and sustain a network of small, innovative high schools across the U.S. using the EdVisions Model, which consists of these essentials: small learning community, self-directed project based learning, authentic assessment, teacher-ownership.
  • The Fertile Grounds Project:
    Based in New York City, this nonprofit organization reaches young people typically left behind by public school education. The Hallway Project helps at-risk high school students get on track to graduate through project based learning, and Camp Kadia teaches survival and leadership skills to inner-city youth through outdoor education.
  • Jefferson County Open School:
    Jefferson County Open School: JCOS is a public pre-K through 12 school in Lakewood, Colorado, based on student-directed learning, mentorship, and caring relationships. Students have plenty of opportunities to learn off campus.
Here are some organizations dedicated to connecting those who believe in providing children a student-driven learning environment.
  • AERO - Alternative Education Resource Organization
    Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) was founded in 1989 by Jerry Mintz. AERO is a branch of the School of Living, a non-profit organization founded in 1934 by Ralph Borsodi. AERO's goal is to advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education. AERO is considered by many to be the primary hub of communications and support for educational alternatives around the world. Education Alternatives include, but are not limited to, Montessori, Waldorf (Steiner), Public Choice and At-Risk, Democratic, Homeschool, Open, Charter, Free, Sudbury, Holistic, Virtual, Magnet, Early Childhood, Reggio Emilia, Indigo, Krishnamurti, Quaker, Libertarian, Independent, Progressive, Community, Cooperative, and Unschooling. One of AERO's areas of expertise is democratic process and democratic education, but equally important is the networking of all forms of educational alternatives. It is through our work and mission that we hope to create an education revolution.  Read More...
  • IDEA - Institute for Democratic Education in America
    IDEA’s mission is
    to ensure that all young people can engaged meaningfully with their education and gain the tools to build a just, democratic, and sustainable world. IDEA envisions an educational system based on respect for human rights and values of freedom and responsibility, participation and collaboration, and equity and justice. IDEA helps transform education by showcasing what works in education and equipping others to learn from it. They advance democratic education: learning that equips every human being to participate fully in a healthy democracy.
    - Download IDEA's Tri-Fold Brochure Hi-Res .PDF (3.39MB)
To all the passion-driven teachers
This post is written for all the passion-driven teachers who are leaving our test-prep obsessed schools in droves because their hands are tied, preventing them from doing what is best for our children.  The teachers who are prevented from letting their passion-driven teaching become contagious because of administrators who do drive-by test prep worksheet collection and write them up for noncompliance and insubordination if they don’t follow the mandates.  There are other options and a whole world of people out there who see students not just as data, but  as precious beings with passions who are yearning to be discovered and developed. 


  1. I think that the Big Picture/Met Schools might be a good example of what you're talking about. Check them out at

    And IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in is also a good resource.

    Steve Miranda ( is a former public school teacher who now teaches at a democratic school.

    You might find his blog of interest, as well as the North Star ( model of a school/resource/community center--also started by former public school teachers.

    --Erin B

  2. Wow...this post is filled with information and links for me to check out for the next few days. Thanks for posting this, I am always looking for ideas from other passionate teachers. is my blog where I try to throw out some of my own ideas and inspirations as far as teaching!


  3. Yes agree with Justin and will look for the hashtag on twitter. Enjoyed the Seth Godin quote that neatly sums up the the limitations of purely data driven decision making about learning and schools.

    Colin Campbell

  4. @Erin B, thank you for all the great additional resources.
    @Justin, thank you for sharing your blog.
    @Colin Campbell, agreed, that Seth Godin quote really does sum it up.

  5. WOW is right Justin!

    Lisa you did an absolutely fantastic job gathering the resources and support necessary for a few fledged revolution!

    Passion driven teaching and learning is not a frill; it is a fundamental necessity if we are to remain, as Seth Godin says, indepsensible!

    If we are not delivering hope, value, and urging our students to contribute content from their hearts, our schools and system will not be sustainable. It is just that simple; it is just that hard.

    The choice is ours.

    Thank you for all you do!

  6. I couldn't find Steve Miranda's blog at the URL posted above. Has it moved?

  7. Edubloggers and educators all need to begin posting like this. Great article and valulable sources!

  8. Hi, previous anonymous!

    I'm a big dork--Steve Miranda's blog is actually, not dot org as I wrote up there. That's what I get for not double-checking before posting!

    --Erin B.

  9. This is an incredible post that I will pass on to others. Last semester, I had biology students who were engaged in inquiry and collaborative learning. We had a provincial exam at the end. However, I didn't teach to it. They learned everything through the collaborative/inquiry process. And they did exceptional on the exam. I will never teach to a test again.

    I have a post about it on my blog:

  10. Thanks for your post. EdVisions website is:

    We just did a video series based on:
    * Small Learning Community -
    * Self Directed, Project Based Learning-
    * Authentic Assessment -
    * Teacher Ownership/Democratic Governance -

  11. Thanks for the info. I am an education writer and parent advocate in Texas - love these posts! Am coming to the same conclusion myself, writing about attending a 'big idea' education workshop at the Habla: Center for Language and Culture school in Merida, Mexico.

    Check it out!
    Holly Korbey

  12. Passion is really what makes teachers teachers and students learners.
    We will pursue what we love and do a lot of learning along the way.

    I don't know if I can completely agree with the "Passion-Driven, Not Data-Driven" education mantra. We MUST be passionate about what we teach and what we learn and the learning environments that we facilitate in the classroom, but data isn't a villan.

    It is useful to know What a student knows and where a student's strengths and weaknesses lie. This is the only way that we an differentiate learning to best address our students' needs.

    This is not to say that the en masse standardized testing is the answer. Standardized testing can be useful to collect information about a student, but NOT as high-stakes testing that completely controls the curriculum for half of the year.

    Passion is what makes the world go round but it is useful to use data to help direct that passion to get the most good out of it.

    Leigh Zeitz