It’s time to spend A Year at Mission Hill

June 24, 2013 • Kim Farris-Berg

Have you ever wanted to see, hear, and feel what happens inside a school where teachers call the shots? Now, thanks to filmmakers Tom and Amy Valens, you can experience A Year at Mission Hill as a 10-chapter series of 5-7 minute videos. They are soon releasing a full-length film, Good Morning Mission Hill: The Freedom to Teach.

Mission Hill K-8, a Boston Public School, is a pilot school where teachers have authority to collectively make the decisions influencing their school’s success. It is one of the schools Edward Dirkswager, Amy Junge, and I wrote about in Trusting Teachers with School Success. (Speaking of which, the Center for Teaching Quality is hosting an online summer book discussion of Trusting Teachers. Join the Collaboratory and dive in!)

I have had the pleasure of writing about each chapter of A Year at Mission Hill on Sam Chaltain’s Education Week Blog, which is named “Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools.” Sam invited me to help fill-in the back story. What are the policies and arrangements behind what the teachers and students do at Mission Hill? Do other groups of teachers who call the shots create similar environments and make similar choices? What can the larger world of American education take away from these experiences?

The following is a round-up of my posts, with the corresponding chapter from A Year at Mission Hill embedded in each. Please pick a few that interest you, and allow yourself to soak up these captivating short films!

Is Teacher Autonomy the Key to School Success? (Chapter 1, Why We’re Here)
In the introductory chapter, Mission Hill teachers unassumingly drop a bombshell. They attribute their school’s sustained success to a democratic governance structure in which teachers have “freedom and autonomy.” Not just classroom autonomy, but the authority to collectively make decisions that influence whole school success.

What if Teachers Ran the School? (Chapter 2, Beginning the Year)
Watching A Year at Mission Hill, we come to understand that the school’s teachers see the “3-R’s” as important. But that’s not all they see as important. They expect students to leave Mission Hill with far more knowledge than reading, writing, and math.

Seeing Curriculum Through a Child’s Eyes (Chapter 3, Making it Real)
(This post was selected as ASCD’s Top Story of the week.) After hearing the students’ voices, the sounds of hammers and drills, and the talk of regularly watching bees, my seven-year-old daughter Ruby snuggled up with me to watch Chapter 3. I told her I was learning about an elementary school in Boston. Within 30 seconds of watching, her jaw dropped. “That’s really a school?” she asked. “Those kids are so lucky!”

Trusted Teachers Nourish Students as Unique Individuals (Chapter 4, Love and Limits)
Like other teacher groups who are trusted with autonomy to collectively make the decisions influencing school success, Mission Hill’s teachers have decided that acknowledging and accommodating students as individuals is the cornerstone of their shared purpose.

Give Teachers Autonomy to Arrange Schools So Students Want to Learn (Chapter 5, The Eye of the Dragon)
Teachers who call the shots often seek to nurture students’ engagement and motivation via learning programs that put students in a position to be active learners… [They place] strong emphasis on helping each student figure out their sources of motivation, and how to tap into those sources in order to learn and graduate.

To Make Communities Safer, Trust Students (Chapter 6, Like a Family)
Teachers who call the shots are showing how we can design disciplinary practices to demonstrate to students that the adults in their schools respect them, want to listen to them and address their individual needs, and trust them with the responsibility of co-creating and co-enforcing community norms.

Creating the Capacity for Teachers to Design High-Performing Schools (Chapter 7, Behind the Scenes)
It’s time to take a good look at whether a new system design could provide the capacity for teachers to create the high-performing schools we all want. There are many, many great teachers who have the know-how, willingness and determination to take on this difficult task. But why would they without a system design that encourages and supports them?

Young People Want More Exposure to What Professionals Do (Chapter 8, The World of Work)
If we want more students to stay committed to the pursuit of a promising future, then perhaps we ought to consider doing what the Avalon and Mission Hill teachers have done. That is, let the students experience tomorrow today.

Teachers Could Shift the Conversation About Assessment and Accountability (Chapter 9, Seeing the Learning)
Teachers who call the shots are showing that assessment and other learning activities can be in service of students and their individualized learning. Also, assessments that are in the service of students can be used for external accountability.

Teachers – Stop Waiting, and Start Calling the Shots (Chapter 10, The Freedom to Teach)
Teachers, make no mistake – it’s not a requirement to wait for permission. If Mission Hill appeals, perhaps this summer is the time for you to start asking yourself what could be for you, your colleagues, your school, and your students – and, eventually for your entire profession and students across the nation – “if only” you would step into the frontier?